When head coach Kirby Dean heard that Eastern Mennonite University wanted to honor and celebrate his 2010 Royals basketball team – the one that qualified for the Elite Eight and set multiple records along the way – he wasn’t sure how many would come. His 13 guys were spread around the country, with jobs and families and other commitments. And you know, the pandemic.
On Saturday, though, there they were, 12 of them, lined up on the main court at Yoder Arena.
Darrell “D.J.” Hinson Jr. came from Colorado where he works as a government IT contractor; George Johnson, now a mental health care provider and entrepreneur from Houston, Texas; Luke Holloran, a musician and educator, from New Orleans. A few of the others were a bit closer:
Orie Pancione from Ridgely, West Virginia, where he is principal at Frankfort High School; Austin Twine, a mortgage lender from Christiansburg, and Owen Longacre, a teacher at Spotswood High School. [For the full roster, see the team photo.]
And Dean was surprised, but then he wasn’t.
“How many programs can honor a group of guys and have this many show up?” Dean said in front of a packed crowd. “That says something about family. When we got in a huddle every game while they were here and put their hands in the middle, we said ‘family’ and that’s why they showed up today.”
Return brings ‘nostalgia’
The team recognition took place at halftime of EMU’s match-up with University of Lynchburg. Ahead 41-19 at the half, the Royals opened a lead and held on for the 65-60 win. The Royals notched their first win over Lynchburg since 2015 and improved their ODAC record to 6-5. View the halftime ceremony, starting at 55 minutes. A game recap is here.
The scene in Yoder Arena evoked nostalgia from Newport News-native Hinson, still a basketball fan though now with limited playing time. He and his toddler son flew in from Denver for the weekend and were joined by his parents from the Williamsburg area.
“It’s been great to be back,” Hinson said during a post-game reception. “I hadn’t come back in a long time and it brings back a lot of memories…There were a lot of people that supported us and I wanted to come back for them.”
One of those was Regina Dean, Kirby’s wife, who continued her tradition of baking post-game treats of brownies and chocolate chip cookies. The Tupperware containers made the rounds among players and their families during an hour-long program in MainStage Theater. “That was the tradition for every game,” she said. “I figured they needed something to celebrate if they won and something to pick them up when they didn’t.”
All of the key assistant coaches that contributed to the team’s success returned as well: Charles Hale is still with EMU, now working with current head coach Melvin Felix. Carey Keyes, a real estate agent, is head coach of the East Rockingham High School boys varsity team, a perennial postseason state tournament contender (his senior star, Tyler Nickel, recently signed with UNC). Mat Huff teaches special education at Luray High and coaches the boys varsity team. And Greg Smith also returned. Though Smith had left coaching at EMU the year prior to the epic run, he had been instrumental in the recruitment of the core of that team and remains in contact with the players.
‘Lightning in a bottle’
James De Boer, then in his first year as EMU’s sports information director, also returned for the celebration. De Boer left EMU last summer but says in his 12 years there, athletics staff routinely recalled the 2010 run, characterizing the intense alchemy of that unique season as “catching lightning in a bottle.”
“It still stands as the greatest single season in the history of EMU men’s basketball,” De Boer said. “What that group of men accomplished literally put EMU basketball onto the national landscape.”
The D3 Hoops poll reflected that: EMU entered at #24 on Jan. 3 and appeared for 25 consecutive weeks, through the end of the 2010-11 season. During that time, the Royals rose as high as #3 on multiple occasions and never fell below #18.
“We were also nationally in the top 10 in attendance,” Dean said. “I don’t think many people knew that. In 2009, we were 13 and 0 at home and won games by an average of 19.9 points and that was with me calling off the dogs halfway through the games.”
Though the team had notched successful records in the preceding years, Dean said later that R.E. Lee grad and junior college transfer Eli Crawford was the difference-maker. Coach Paul Hatcher’s program at Lee was a powerhouse in the area (the school is now known as Staunton High). A player who would have been a starter on any other team, Crawford sized up the team dynamic and told Dean, “I want to be your sixth man and the best sixth man you’ve ever had.” He was.
In January, 1,546 rowdy EMU fans packed Yoder Arena to watch the Royals upset No. 1 ranked Randolph-Macon by 23 points.
“This was before the era of D-III sports getting a chance on ESPN highlights, and before social media really took off, yet there was just a feeling that people around the nation noticed what had just happened,” De Boer remembers. “Despite not getting the recognition they should have in the national poll, or perhaps to spite that fact, the guys did it again, this time on the road, beating a top-ranked Guilford team a month later in Greensboro, 90-63.”
Legacy lives on
After losing in the ODAC tournament, EMU earned an at-large bid to the NCAA National Tournament and hosted their next two games. The win against Centre College set up a next-day game scenario and Dean remembered coming to campus early the next morning to watch film. Instead he ended up spending the next three hours greeting the fans who were lined up for tickets around the indoor track. “The support was amazing,” he said.
EMU would go on to beat Wilmington and Whitworth, but lose against Guilford, the team they had beaten in the regular season by 27 points. To this day, Dean believes that if his full team had been available (lone senior Austin Twine suffered a season-ending ACL injury in February), the team would have gone to the Final Four. As it was, they were 25-5 and ended the season ranked fourth in the D3 Hoops national poll.
Dean understands the importance of that single season, but he also notes the success of teams before and after. “From 2008 to 2018, only three teams in the ODAC won more games than us. As great as they were for two years, they put our program on the map, they created a culture and that’s why we continued to win after they walked out the door, why we win now and why we will continue to win in the future because they showed it can be done at Eastern Mennonite.”
In the fall at EMU’s 2022 Homecoming and Family Weekend, the team will be the first basketball team to be inducted into the university’s Hall of Honor.