By Duane Cochran
For the Times West Virginian
To say first-year Fairmont State head basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun, his staff and his team enjoyed a successful initial season might just be the understatement of the year.
The Falcons, under the guidance of Calhoun, engineered the biggest turnaround in school history by winning 15 more games than they did a year ago and earning a berth in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament where they finished as one of the top 32 teams in the country in the D-II ranks.
“You know we put this thing together in about a month or so,” said Calhoun. “I was hired in April, which was kind of late, and we scrambled, worked our butts off recruiting and got this program better. We won eight games last year and ended up winning 23 this year, making the NCAA Tournament and finished as the second-best team in the league.”
Now for Calhoun's next trick — to at least maintain or better that status next season. That, however, won't be easy. Gone are seven seniors, including three starters who combined to provide FSU with 53 percent of its offense this year.
The Falcons lose four-year starting guard Isaac Thornton, who led the team in scoring this past season (17.3) and finished his stellar career seventh all-time in scoring in school history with 2,106 points. FSU also loses one-year players Malik Stith and Isaiah Hill. Stith, a point guard who transferred to Fairmont from Division I St. John's University, was second on the team in scoring (14.7) and led the squad in both assists (116) and steals (63). Hill, a 6-9 center, transferred to FSU from Mountain State University and finished fourth on the team in scoring (12.4), second in rebounding (6.6) and first in blocked shots (50).
The Falcons also lose backup forwards Andrew Gunnoe (1.8 ppg) and Rudy Roberts (2.3 ppg) and backup guards Melvin Rhodes (2.4 ppg) and Myles Petretti (1.4 ppg).
“I coached a lot of good seniors, including five from the previous season and they all bought into what we were doing this year,” said Calhoun. “That was a big key for us. Guys like Isaac, Malik and Isaiah get a lot of the credit, but guys like Mel, Andrew Gunnoe, Rudy and Myles worked extremely hard all year and really pushed those guys in practice.
“Really, in all honestly, I think we're a program which is just getting started and I hope our guys returning learn from our experiences this year. I'm sad for our seniors not to be able to coach them any more, but they're all guys who are going to go on and be successful in their lives. They set the foundation to get our program back. It's been a long, long time since Fairmont State has been relevant and I think now we're relevant again.”
Despite the significant losses, Fairmont has players on which to build including returning starters Brendan Cooper and Stevie Browning and experienced backups Ke'Chaun Lewis, Chase Morgan, Tommy Scales and Ty Garrison.
Cooper, a 6-7 senior-to-be forward, was third on the team in scoring this season (12.6) and led the Falcons in rebounding (7.0). He also was second in both blocked shots (30) and assists (90).
Browning, a 6-2 guard who will be a true sophomore next year, averaged 6.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per outing for FSU and was second on the team in made 3-point field goals with 24.
Lewis, a 6-3 guard who will also be a true sophomore next season, averaged 4.5 points and 1.9 rebounds. He was third on the team in both assists (61) and steals (44).
Morgan, a 5-11 junior-to-be guard, averaged 7.4 points and led the Falcons in made 3-pointers with 46.
Scales, a 6-8 sophomore-to-be forward, averaged 2.9 points and 2.4 rebounds, while Garrison, a 6-3 senior-to-be guard, averaged 1.1 points and 1.3 rebounds. All six of those players saw action in 21 or more games for FSU this past year.
The Falcons also have three freshmen players who redshirted this past season. Included in that group are 6-5 guard Thomas Wimbush, 6-5 forward Terence Stafford and 6-7 forward Trevor Andrews-Evans.
In addition, Calhoun and his staff have been on the road recruiting constantly this season when they haven't had games and that process is still continuing. They hope to bring in several impact players for next season.
“The bottom line is we have to get better,” said Calhoun. “We've got a good nucleus to build around, but we have to improve. There's no doubt we made strides this season as a program, but at the same time in no way are we satisfied with where we're at and because of that we've got to work hard in all areas to improve.”