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North Idaho College putting together quite a swan song

Corey Symons’ basketball team at North Idaho College is 23-0 and ranked third in the nation, and he’ll be frank: he doesn’t have the manual for this.

Sure, it’s still coaching – 23-0, 0-23 and all points in between. But it’s one thing to cruise the family truckster down Northwest Boulevard; it’s quite another to buckle up behind the wheel of one of those Mercedes F1 hybrids and mash the pedal.

“Not a lot of teams will understand the position we’re in, having the target on your back,” said the Cardinals’ second-year head coach. “I know I’ve never been 23-0 before.”

In more than 50 years of playing hoops, neither has the school.

Not that it’s been much of an ordeal. Back in November, they won a game in Arizona against South Mountain Community College by four points. A month later, they beat Everett on their home floor by eight. Those are the only single-digit speed bumps they’ve encountered.

Now things get interesting – four of their next five games are on the road, starting with Thursday’s date at 16th-ranked Salt Lake.

“So I’ll tell you after this weekend how good we are,” Symons joked.

Well, it’s unlikely the verdict will change all that much. Nor will the notion that whatever the Cardinals achieve this season, they seem determined to scatter a lot of confetti in the offramp from life in the fast lane of junior college basketball, if there is such a thing.

This is NIC’s last season as a card-carrying member of the the National Junior College Athletic Association, where the yellow brick road always leads to “Hutch” – the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas – and the week-long crapshoot-cum-meat-market that is as March mad as anything the NCAA ever concocted. Two years ago, facing plummeting enrollment and the attendant revenue decline, the school opted to remake its athletic self in the Northwest Athletic Conference, the Washington, Oregon, British Columbia – and now Idaho – collective where the vision is more modest, and the scholarship and travel burden more economical.

It’s a hard swallow for many invested with the school. The Cardinals were national players in nearly all their sports, and the basketball talent that came through Christianson Gymnasium could be big time. Taking the same kind of budget hit the rest of the school has endured is prudent and fair, but it’s also an anomaly in college athletics.

Even in the grips of a recession, NIC’s NCAA neighbors added staff, built palaces and asked donors for more.

But later for that. This season isn’t about the Cardinals proving a point.

“Every year we want to make a splash,” insisted Symons. “We were literally five minutes from the national tournament last season. That left a little sour taste with our players who were returning, and we’ve got guys who’ve worked hard and played well to try and get there this year.

“Don’t get me wrong – we’d love to go out with a bang. But right now, we’d just like to win a couple this weekend.”

The Cardinals have stayed perfect to this point with a typically interesting mix – a little foreign, a little regional, a little local – and, Symons points out, the kind of camaraderie and selflessness common to the best teams.

The big guns are a couple of stretchy wings, Braian Angola-Rodas of Colombia and Brayon Blake of Seattle – each averaging 22.7 points a game, 10th in the country. The point guard, Lucas Anthunez, is from Spain – and played with Angola-Rodas on a 31-win team that reached the semis of the national high school invitational. Blake helped Garfield of Seattle storm to the State 4A title two years ago.

“We have guys who know how to win,” Symons said.

For support, there are players like shooting guard, Kaleb Warner, another Seattle kid who transferred from Pacific. And the glue is Lake City’s own Kyle Guice.

“Old school,” said Symons. “Does all the dirty work.”

That could apply to Symons himself: he put in 10 years as an assistant to Jared Phay before his old Falls Christian teammate took the job at rival Southern Idaho. But long before that, he spent a redshirt season at NIC as a player under Rolly Williams – and going to games as a kid before that – and so the stewardship of the program means a lot to him.

Which is why he insisted “we’re not going to go about things any differently” when the Cardinals move to the NWAC.

The nonconference schedule will include Scenic West opponents – including CSI, where Phay has agreed to keep the rivalry alive. And if the scholarship parameters will be more limiting – both geographically and fiscally – “we’ll recruit the best players we can get,” said Symons, who with assistant George Swanson will exploit deep Seattle connections.

“Maybe the scholarship might be a little less,” he said, “but we can sell the program, the tradition and the school. We’re still going to compete. That’s not going to change.”

Sounds like he has a pretty good manual, after all.

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