COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Southwestern Collegiate Institute for the Deaf provides athletic outlet
By RYAN COLLINGWOOD [email protected]
December 25, 2014
BIG SPRING As Daniel Sandoval crossed the midcourt line trying to split a pair of Odessa College defenders, the point guard raised his non-dribbling hand and signaled for an offensive set.
His teammates, visibly outmatched by the 14th-ranked junior college squad in the country, proceeded to move accordingly, screening away from the ball in an effort to create space from a horde of long, athletic defenders.
Amid the movement, not a single player donning the acronym SWCID uttered as much as a syllable trying to evade the overwhelming pressure.
If not for the screeching sneakers against the cracker box gym’s hardwood, their effort would have been completely inaudible to the opposition, spectators and officials.
Those folks would have temporarily absorbed what members of the Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf men’s and women’s basketball programs experience every moment of their lives — silence.
Silence in a game comprised of so many distinct tones.
The shrill noise of a quarter-ending buzzer. The indicative blow of a referee’s whistle. Adrenaline-inciting warm-up music.
Its communication may come by way of hand movement and lip reading, but the tiny West Texas school operates like any other community college trying to bring stability to a fledgling basketball program.
One that is compounded by its own set of hurdles, anyway, including a shallow recruiting pool, athletic directors reluctant to schedule them and typically lopsided results.
Being devoid of both a conference and a postseason doesn’t help the Rattlers, either.
But fielding a team and giving students an opportunity they likely wouldn’t have had otherwise has been the biggest coup, per coach Roderica Johnson, who heads both the men’s and women’s teams.
“I just tell (the players) that everybody is going to notice the heart they have,” Johnson said. “They’re kind of telling their story on the court.”
THE OTHER COLLEGE
Big Spring, a town of 29,000 residents just east of Midland along the I-20 corridor, is a town known to locals for its sizable oil refinery, Howard College and one of the bigger federal prisons in the region.
Federal Correctional Institution of Big Spring has nearly 2,000 prisoners including notable inmates such as Max Butler, famously known for racking up $86 million in fraudulent charges and receiving the longest prison sentence for computer hacking in US history.
The razor wire that keeps inmates from scaling a heightened fence is less than a stone’s throw from SWCID, the lesser known institution that houses around 100 students on its quaint campus on the west side of town.
The school, a branch of Howard College — the traditional junior college across town with basketball programs that have sent a slew of players onto the NCAA Division I level including Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder — was established in 1979. Its basketball programs have been around just five years.
SWCID’s athletic facility is commensurate with that of a small high school’s, boasting a couple offices, a basketball court capable of seating 300 spectators, a pair of locker rooms and a small weight room.
Johnson is currently the only one occupying an office, but it wasn’t that way when she was hired fresh out of Southwestern University, where, only a year ago, she played guard for the NCAA Division III school in Georgetown.
Initially Johnson, who turned 23 this month, was hired as an assistant under former head coach Derrick Jackson who left the program in November, Johnson said, for family reasons.
But Johnson didn’t just inherit the women’s program. She’d have to lead the men — a team featuring players ages 18-30 — as part of a packaged deal.
All of this responsibility on top of a sign language barrier that’s thinned out as the season has progressed.
“I’m learning (sign language) on the job. I can have a casual conversation,” said Johnson, who doesn’t have an assistant coach. “I’m able to get my point across. The kids help me out every day.”
Johnson wanted to get her feet wet in the ever-competitive realm of collegiate coaching but has essentially found herself in a de facto athletic director role.
Managing the personalities of 22 men and women players along with student managers — with the help of resident interpreters — with administrative work, to boot, has been a trial-by-fire experience she’s embracing.
“Doing something I love while working with students are who deaf, I never thought I’d be in this position,” Johnson said. “But I’m loving it.”
Sandoval, a Midland native, was assertive during his club’s 115-31 loss to Odessa College in a Dec. 8 game in Big Spring.
His frustration was apparent but he wasn’t deterred by the fact that the Wranglers scored at will while giving up very little on the defensive end, all while rotating reserves throughout the duration of the blowout.
The 6-foot sophomore fired a 25-footer from the top of the key while absorbing contact, but the referee, who, when a whistle is blown, will signal to the SWCID interpreter who then signs the call to the players, didn’t budge.
An irked Sandoval made a subtle grunt and voiced his annoyance with the no-call through gesticulation. His coach, interpreter Annie O’Connell and his teammates understood him but, fortunately for Sandoval, the officials didn’t.
Johnson immediately called a timeout to cool off the team’s best ball handler while trying to halt the momentum of Odessa College’s 26-2 run.
In the huddle Johnson spoke sternly to the group of young men her age and older. O’Connell, Johnson’s shadow during games, quickly processed everything the coach said before conveying the messages back and forth through sign.
The men’s team is made up of 10 players who are completely deaf. The women’s team, however, has some players who are hard of hearing but legally deaf.
They’ve never used their deficiency as a crutch, though.
“Just because you’re deaf doesn’t mean the other team will have sympathy for you or anything like that,” Johnson said. “You have to play and give it your all. It’s all I can ask for. The score may say something different, but it’s all I can ask for.”
SWCID’s men, who don’t feature a player over 6-foot-2, has yet to win a game (0-8) this season, having been matched up with the likes of NJCAA Division I Odessa College, Frank Phillips College and Western Oklahoma.
The Rattler women (1-9) opened up their season with a win at Ecclesia College before dropping their next nine games.
As far as the varying talent on each goes there’s a substantial chasm.
Prior to their tenure at SWCID, some players were major contributors on their high school basketball teams while others played recreationally. Some had never picked up a basketball.
Brittany Breedlove, a 5-foot-6 guard on the women’s team, transferred from Arlington Baptist where she redshirted last season.
“Basically whoever shows up, that’s who we have,” Johnson said. “We try to do as much recruiting as possible.”
It’s typical for a junior college roster to be dotted with local, in-state products, but SWCID boasts players from all over the country.
From Arizona, Kansas, Tennessee, Massachusetts to Wisconsin, SWCID has been able to attract deaf students who want to take the junior college route and earn an associate’s degree before transferring to a university, all while getting the chance to continue their playing careers.
What makes SWCID attractive, Johnson said, is that it’s the country’s lone junior college for deaf students. As far as four-year deaf schools go there are only two — Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y.
Not that the players are limited to one of the two aforementioned schools when they’ve exhausted their general studies courses.
Sandoval, who prepped at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin before graduating in 2013, is a mechanics major who hopes to extend his college career beyond SWCID.
“It’s great to be able to continue playing the game,” Sandoval said through an interpreter. “I’d like to go to school out of state when I transfer.”
Unlike most of his teammates, Sandoval wasn’t born deaf. As a 5-year-old he suffered from an ear infection that deteriorated his hearing entirely.
He attended elementary and middle school in Midland before getting his high school education at the state’s foremost high school for deaf students in the state’s capital.
Now he’s back in the Permian Basin where all of his friends and family have to do is make the 45-minute jaunt east.
“I like that my family can watch me play,” Sandoval said. “We play against good players and good teams. It’s tough but it makes us better.”
On the women’s team, sophomore guard Judy Lopez is the lone local and one of the top two gunners for the Rattlers.
Lopez, who wants to be a dentist, saw substantial playing time at Seminole High School during her junior and senior seasons and was an all-district softball player.
Being the lone deaf athlete growing up wasn’t easy. At SWCID, though, there’s no communication barrier with teammates, which has helped her flourish.
“It’s definitely helped,” Lopez said through an interpreter. “It’s made things easier as far as how we can talk on the floor.”
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
It had been a decade since Anthony Luckey played an organized sport, let alone opened a textbook.
The 6-foot guard had a brief stint playing football as a defensive back at Tyler Junior College in 2003 before dropping out.
The Dallas native and W.W. Samuell High grad recently began chewing on the idea of a career in education and coaching but knew he’d have to attain a college degree first.
A relative put the bug in Luckey’s ear about SWCID and played on the fact the school offered a basketball program, a sport he hadn’t played since high school.
Now the 30-year-old Luckey is one of the Rattlers’ top players and is enjoying every minute of his athletic rebirth.
“I have a lot of goals,” Luckey said through an interpreter. “I wanted to come out here, help the basketball team and have a good experience.”
Luckey is 12 years the senior of some of his teammates and nearly eight year older than his coach. But he doesn’t look at it that way.
“It doesn’t really bother me at all,” Luckey said of the age chasm. “Numbers aren’t important to me.”
It hasn’t bothered Johnson, either, praising the man’s mature and collected demeanor.
“He’s very wise and keeps the team together,” Johnson said. “He does what he has to do.”
Before making the move to West Texas from the Metroplex, Luckey had never heard of deaf college athletic programs.
Now one is giving him the incentive to finish school while proving that the hearing impaired can hoop.
“I think it’s cool that we have a deaf team,” Luckey said. “It shows we can play too.”
A few squads have approached SWCID like they would a conference opponent, running up the score to the tune of a near triple-digit beatdown.
Others teams, like the Odessa College men, couldn’t help but come away with an 84-point decision. They never pressed, went deep in their bench early and did everything short of handing the Rattlers the basketball each trip up the floor.
In a women’s game earlier in the season Cisco College established a big enough cushion against SWCID to slow down a game it eventually won 76-22
During a timeout Cisco head coach Charinee Mitchell approached Johnson asking what her team could do to lessen the blow, immediately pulling out of a press when the game was basically decided early in the second half.
“There are schools that are very respectful and other teams just dog us,” Johnson said. “For (Mitchell) to do that meant a lot to me.”
When Odessa College, which has three players signed with Division I schools and likely more come spring, concluded its game with SWCID, players from both teams shared laughs and took photos together.
Odessa College took in the rare occurrence. What the Wranglers didn’t get in competition they got in perspective.
“It was a good experience,” Odessa College assistant Jeff Mailhot said. “It brings a smile to your face.”