Basketball seniors line up for final season

Jose Cruz, Luke Houston and Tylon Smith are key players on the team. Photo Credit: Derek Torrellas 

Bobby Martinez – Sports Writer 

A program that was once was arguably the worst basketball schools in all of Division II, quickly evolved to one of the best the Nation has. Some would’ve told any recruit, ‘Why would you play at Southern?,’ but Owls three seniors, Tylon Smith, Luke Houston and Jose Cruz, instantly had a connection with head coach Michael Donnelly who built this team around these three seniors.

“Coming into it,” said Houston, “we kind of knew we would’ve had to build a foundation. That’s kind of how they sold it to us when they were recruiting us.  They told us to come here and be the foundation for a future winning program. And they always believed that this place would be a winning program. Now seeing what were able to do in these three years of being here, it’s an incredible feeling for us.”

These three seniors were the first group of recruits Donnelly has chosen to wear an Owls uniform.  A coach whose previous job was at Post University in Waterbury Conn., had a resume coming into Southern that was tough as iron. Donnelly’s resume accomplishments at Post consisted of: six Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CCAC) tournaments, three Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference playoffs, 2007 CACC coach of the year, programs first ever number one ranking and having the most wins as a coach with 98.

team photo

As for Smith, he said Donnelly and his assistant coach Mike Makubika, told them that they would prosper at Southern and can be one of the top colleges in the country when it’s all said and done.

“Coach fed us that, we could be the class that could turn this program around,” he said, “and jump start this program to a dynasty. I think that me Jose and Luke, really set the example in terms of, the perfect class, the perfect student athletes, just the perfect leaders as a whole. And now we’re reaping the benefits that we put in the last three years.”

Cruz added, “ I hope that our example will help this program continue its success over the years.”

With this being the final year for each player, all three hadn’t lost any love for the game of basketball, a game that each has played their entire life. With the Owls having their best season of all-time last season, a promise Donnelly told his players they can achieve, the Owls reached the Elite Eight last season but fell short to University of Central Missouri, the team who went on to win the National Championship by defeating West Liberty University, 84-77.

basketball paceWhen asked what motivates each of them each and every morning where as an athlete, your main objective is to get better daily,  Cruz showed an image on his iPhone lock screen that included the National Title where he said, “this right here.” Smith also has the same image set on his iPhone lock screen.

Luke followed and said, “Since my freshman year, I knew we were capable of winning a National Championship. All I want to do is win a National Championship, that’s what motivates me. That’s what’s driving me every day.”

Some athletes can cope with a heartbreaking loss, and some can’t. It can either, make, or break and athlete mentally. Smith said these three are used to falling short and have managed to come back better each year.

“As for this class,” said Smith with a chuckle, “we’re used to it. Our freshman year we were a game short of the NCAA Tournament, our sophomore year, same result. So we’re used to it. We have always managed to bounce back from it. We’re taking last year as the final bounce back to finish the job and finish our careers the right way.”

But these three seniors have used last year’s loss as motivation and have worked out all summer to try and become better players.

Smith, in the offseason, would workout daily where his focus was getting stronger and faster. He would also take part in Yoga where he said has helped him out a lot. As for Houston, a player who only had one college looking at him which was Southern, would play in any park or league where he would know the competition would be very high.

In fact, Houston would sharpen his skills by playing in numerous leagues around New York City and also the Conn., Pro-Amateur league. But Houston’s will to become a better player wouldn’t just stop there. Rucker Park, a park located in the Harlem neighborhood of the New York City borough of Manhattan, one of the most well-known parks in the country, would be Houston’s other outlet for practicing.

dunkWhen it comes to Cruz, a player who sparked the Owls team throughout the season last year, took his talents to Puerto Rico, where he said he would try and get the most game experience  possible because he felt that’s what he needed the most heading into this season.

As the years progressed and each have gotten closer and closer together to the point where they call each other family, each said Donnelly and Mak have been a close friend and a father figure to them. Smith said Donnelly has given them room to grow but at the same time, made sure they were making the right decisions whether its basketball decisions or life decisions.

“He’s been a father figure for all of us,” said Smith. “He’s had an open door for us whether we needed anything when it comes to school, life or basketball. We been able to talk to him and all have been able to become close to him in our own special ways. He’s also gave the room to grow and be athletes and men I’m going to miss Donnelly and Mak next year when they are no longer our coaches.”

Cruz added, “They’ve done a great job just by leading by example. The way they go about their business, just by the way they even got here to be in this position. That something I always talk to them about. I will definitely keep a relationship with these guys pass my playing days.”

Photo Credit: Derek Torrellas


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