SITM: Mott's Steve Schmidt chases fifth national title with capable Bears

By Adam Biggers

With four on each side of the goal, eight banners -- four of the national-title variety -- span the west wall of Steve Schmidt Gymnasium, each signifying its namesake's sheer domination of the NJCAA Division II level for the past decade-and-a-half. 

Since the turn of the millennium, the Bears have been runners-up thrice and frequented the national semis. The perennial favorite to win the Michigan Community College Athletic Association, Mott has all but become a scheduled visitor to Danville, Ill., the home of the national tournament. 

"We've been in a drought the past few years," said Schmidt, who won a fourth national title in 2012. 

"There's no place that I'd rather be during the last week of March," said Schmidt, smiling while sitting behind his desk. "But I don't want to get ahead of myself." 

At No. 8 in the nation and 17-3 overall (6-1 MCCAA), the Bears are good. There's no debating that. They don't have the Doug Anderson-type of athlete, but they do have 10 players who do the necessary jobs -- an effort that has led to 13 wins during the past 14 games. 

"I've coached long enough to know that it takes more than just having a 'good' team," said Schmidt, a 26-year veteran at MCC. "You've got to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. You've got to work toward that, and you've got to get guys ready. At our level, a junior college, we're all young. 

"I've heard people say, 'Well, I've got a young team.' Well, who in the junior college (division) aren't young? Unless you have eight sophomores, you're young. We have three. We have seven freshmen."

Really, the 2017-18 Bears may be better equipped to make a championship-run. Schmidt's best teams, often times, have been his most experienced teams. The 2010-11 Bears -- national runners-up with Anderson -- were led by a group of sophomores, which was also the case during the 2011-12 national title run. 

"That's what my goal is," said Schmidt, referencing the return of his underclassmen. "But I do like the leadership of the two kids I brought back from last year's team: Diandre Wilson and Sean Corcoran -- who's improved so much from last year. He's out there, he's a good leader and he gives it everything he has." 

They like each other. They joke and play. They enjoy each other's company. 

And they're all tied to one goal. 

According to Wilson, who dropped 31 on Alpena, that has been the main difference between 2015-16, a forgettable year for the Bears, and 2016-17, a potentially memorable season. 

"We practice hard against each other and make sure everybody's focused," said Wilson, a 6-2, 170-pound sophomore out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "As a captain, I've got to make sure we stay focused."

He has done that, and then some, through the first 20 games of the season. The second-year star has matured in several ways, most notably in the classroom and by the way he carries himself during workouts, said Schmidt. 

One blossoming star who's putting everything together in Wilson. A guy who's exceeded expectations in Corcoran. And they're accompanied by eight others who know roles and expectations -- that could be a successful recipe for the Bears, who have made runs with mixtures of talent and experience. 

Coaching as well. The Bears have an abundance of direction. Longtime assistant Carl Jones, former Bears star Greg Hamlin and newcomer Tommy Twardecki, an expert scout of opposing teams, have provided a new sense of comfort for Schmidt. 

However, he won't definitely say that he has a national title contender. Truthfully, he won't even entertain conversations about Danville beyond the realm of entertainment. He smiles and laughs, then he points out that Mott still has No. 14-ranked Lansing -- one of three MCCAA programs in the NJCAA DII top-15 poll -- and Wayne County Community College -- where it hasn't won in "two, three or four years," per Schmidt -- remaining on its schedule...

...and that's all before the MCCAA tournament, which Mott must win in order to qualify for a trip to Danville. 

With that being said, players know that they have at least shreds of that certain something of yesteryear's Bears. Schmidt knows, too.

"Yeah, he's changed -- he's changed a little," said Wilson, grinning while mentioning a more apparent lighter side of Schmidt. "He was more frustrated last year because we lost games that we weren't supposed to lose.

"And now we're winning. When you're winning, coach is always happy.  He's a little bit different than he was last year." 

Different is good, and not all title-contending teams are cast from the same mold. The 2016-17 Bears, given their current rate of maturation, could be the ones to hoist a fifth championship banner at Ballenger Fieldhouse. 

"We've got a lot of pieces," said Schmidt, who moved deeper into his chair. "We only have 10 players, but we've got a lot of pieces. I like what we have. We have pretty good team chemistry. These guys like each other."

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