By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
It might sound like a little step, but it was more like a leap for Joe Shovlain.
He’s hoping it’s the springboard to carry his Clinton Community College men’s basketball team to another level.
The Cougars have come a long way since a lack of players forced them to suspend their season midway through 2008-09.
Last season, they ended a five-year drought in Iowa Community College Athletic Conference action by beating Southwestern, and they doubled their win total from 2010-11, finishing with a 6-22 record.
They are aiming higher this winter.
“I really think we’d like to be over .500,” Shovlain, the CCC coach, said. “Even though we lost a few guys along the way, I think we can get there. I’m sick of losing.”
The Cougars open the season Saturday at Black Hawk East with a team that includes two players from Clinton and five from Davenport, with another Iowan, a big-time scorer from Missouri, an Australian and four players from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The new group gives the Cougars better balance and more talent, Shovlain said. Enough so, he added, that he considers only two players — Virshaun Grant and Charles Pemberton — as locks to start. He said the rest of the starting five could vary from game to game, and he’s not even sure who will start in Saturday’s opener.
Although last year’s team was loaded with freshman, just four players return.
“We weeded some of those kids out,” Shovlain said. They weren't fitting in our plans where we wanted to go. We felt the guys we kept did.”
The returning players are Virshaun Grant, Richard Hurt, Dane Barun and Andrew Temperly.
“All of them have improved,” Shovlain said.
Grant, a 5-foot-10 guard from Davenport North, is the top returning player. He averaged 5 points, 3.3 assists and 2 steals a game last season and will serve as the Cougars point guard..
“He’s an outstanding student,” Shovlain said. “He had to improve his outside shot. He wants to take every ball to the basket, and in college you can’t do that, especially at 5-10. He has improved that. He also has great leadership skills, and we’ll ask him to take on more of a leadership role.”
Barun, from St. Albans, Australia, is the tallest player on the squad at 6-foot-6, and he has added 10-15 pounds, according to Shovlain. He started 20 games last year, averaging 3.6 points and 3 rebounds.
“He moves great without the ball,” Shovlain said. “He’s an excellent student, is stronger and jumps a little higher this year.”
Hurt, a 6-0 guard from Davenport Central, played in 25 games last year, starting four, and averaged 6.2 points and 2.8 rebounds.
“He’s another kid who does well in the classroom; he’s kind of a campus leader,” Shovlain said. “He’s converted from a 4 (power forward) at Davenport Central to a wing, and we knew it would be about a year for him to develop. He still needs to work on his ball-handling, outside shot and defensive quickness.”
Temperly, a 6-2 guard, is a former Clinton High player who saw action in 15 games last season.
“I can’t say enough about his work ethic,” Shovlain said.
While he likes the players who are back, Shovlain also is excited about the newcomers joining the squad. He’s especially delighted to have some size to work with.
“Size killed us last year,” Shovlain said. “That’s why we had to go to such guard-oriented play. This year we’re more balanced.”
Heading the big players is 6-5, 238-pound Charles Pemberton from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. He is a transfer from Moberly (Mo.) Junior College, where he averaged 5 points and 3.7 rebounds a game last year.
“He’s legit,” Shovlain said. “He’s muscular and takes up a lot of space.”
Shovlain puts another of the players from the Virgin Islands in that category: 6-5, 240-pound BeeJay Caleb.
The Cougars also brought in 6-3, 230-pound guard-forward James Randolph of Davenport North. He led the Mississippi Athletic Conference in rebounding last season (11.2 a game) and was second in scoring (19.0 points a game).
“He takes up a lot of space, does a great job positioning his body and can score,” Shovlain said. “He’s crafty around the basket.”
DaShawn Richardson, a transfer from Rochester (Minn.) Community College, and Josh Harris of Davenport Central are a pair of 6-2 players who can play the 2, 3 or 4 positions.
The rest of the incoming players will be out on the perimeter.
They are B.J. Bostic, a 6-2 guard who averaged 14.6 points a game for Prince of Peace last year; Xzavion Jones, a 6-foot guard who was the No. 3 scorer in the MAC (18.0 points a game) for Davenport North; 5-9 Dominique Helgemo, the leading scorer from the St. Louis Public League (19.5 points a game); and two 6-2 players from the Virgin Islands, Dione Blyden and Kimani Stevens.
“B.J. is going to see playing time,” Shovlain said. “Xzavion has had a great preseason and without a doubt will play in the rotation. Helgemo is an exceptionally quick athlete with a 44-inch vertical jump who can shoot, can dribble and can get the ball to the rack. Stevens can dunk with either hand. Blyden just needs to understand the Americanized version of the game.”
Although Shovlain said the Cougars would put an improved product on the floor, he said the competition in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference would be as tough as ever.
“The conference is really good this year,” he said. “NIACC has a lot of kids back, Iowa Lakes has good kids, Southwestern and Ellsworth have good teams, and Kirkwood, DMAAC and Iowa Central are always good.”
The schedule also includes NJCAA Division I instate teams in Indian Hills and Marshalltown.
After opening Saturday at Black Hawk East in Kewanee, Ill., the Cougars return home for their next three games. They start the home season Wednesday with a 7:30 p.m. game against Carl Sandburg at Yourd Gymnasium.
“It will be an interesting season, a fun season,” Shovlain said. “We will be more competitive. I think we have legit players for the first time in quite awhile for Clinton.”