CONCORDIA, Kansas — In six days, the Cloud County Community College men's basketball team will step on the court for a non-conference road contest against Brown Mackie College to tip-off the 2016-17 season.
New year, fresh faces, and a clean slate are all welcomed sights for the T-Birds, who are eager to shrug off a disappointing 2015-16 campaign where they finished last in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference with a record of 10-22 overall, 2-12 KJCCC.
The KJCCC preseason coaches' poll released Monday had Cloud County coming in at No. 11 out of 14 teams. But those are meaningless numbers to head coach Chad Eshbaugh and his retooled T-Birds.
"I don't put any stock into the preseason polls, whether we're No. 1 or No. 14," said Eshbaugh, who is entering his seventh season as head coach and 11th overall at Cloud County. "In junior college, I'm a big believer that the polls are even more irrelevant than at four-year levels because half of every team in the country is made up of new guys."
Cloud County will welcomes back six returners from last year's squad, led by point guard Aamahne Santos, who was the team's second leading scorer in 2015-16 at 10.7 points per game and averaged a team-high 5.4 assists per contest. His 167 assists were the 26th most of any NJCAA DI player.
The T-Birds will also welcome in a pair of sophomore transfers at the guard position in Lavar Harewood, a NCAA Division I transfer from the University of Maine, and Kansas native Andrew Ballock, who returns to the state after starting his collegiate career at Missouri Southern.
"He's been exceptional during the preseason," said Eshbaugh, referring to Ballock, the all-time leading scorer at Eudora High School. "He's a kid we're going to lean heavily on, not just because of his play but for his leadership."
Other newcomers expected to make impacts are redshirt freshman Ramion Burt Jr., an offensive playmaker at forward; combo guard Solomon Finley; guard Alvin Thompson, a high school triple jump champion in Missouri; Rojaye Campbell, a 6-10 270-pound center; and freshman guard Shawn Lee, who Eshbaugh said has the talent level to be "a guy people could be watching on television."
During the offseason and through the first few weeks of practice, Eshbaugh said this year's group has shown a strong willingness to do the dirty work and demonstrated the talent necessary to be a conference threat.
"I think the biggest difference with this year's team from last year is mindset. These guys are very willing workers. I don't have to spend time in practice coaching effort. I can coach basketball," Eshbaugh said. "I do believe we're more talented, as well."
Cloud County's talent and depth will tested often this season as KJCCC members will play a newly configured 26-game conference schedule, pinning each conference foe against each other twice during the regular season.
"It'll be an absolute grind. It's a marathon, not a sprint and we have to take it like that. We can't get too excited after wins or too down after losses," Eshbaugh said. "The 26 conference games in consecutive order, to me, is silly. But that's what the league decided to do, so we're going to have to have a very even-keeled, collective toughness as we approach this gauntlet."
Where the T-Birds will stand after the KJCCC gauntlet remains to be seen, and coach Eshbaugh said he and his players aren't looking that far ahead. Cloud County is focused on having a consistent and productive day-by-day approach.
"The second you start thinking about what you're going to do in March it means you're not paying very good attention to what you're doing in October," Eshbaugh said. "We'll focus on what we're going to do today, and then again tomorrow. We'll keep plugging away with that perspective every single day. We believe our work is at a high level. If we continue putting in that work, we hope we can put ourselves in a position at the end of the season to be very relevant."
The T-Birds will get the season underway at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1 on the road against Brown Mackie College.