Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Campbell Camels are rolling ...

... and nope, they don't run "The System." But they are having an incredible season so far, so I wanted to give a shoutout to coach Robbie Laing and his bunch.

I first ran across Coach Laing in 2005, late in his second season after taking over a program that essentially have fallen off track. This was his first head coaching job in college after working at eight different Division I schools as an assistant, and he left his position at Kansas State to take over in Buies Creek, N.C. As I said, nothing was going right when he got there, with only 20 victories in the previous three seasons, and that trouble continued through his first two years. Campbell was a combined 5-49 in that span, and during my time with The Associated Press, I visited campus Feb. 24, 2005, for a story on the struggles.

You never know what to expect in that situation, since the only reason he and his team had drawn my attention was their uncanny run of futility. I was shocked when I sat down with him after an 89-83 loss to Florida Atlantic, then coached by former NBA star Sidney Green. Coach Laing was accommodating, friendly and completely honest about how bad things were, never backing away from where he was. He offered no excuses and since he felt extremely fortunate to have his job (as he told me, he was one of only about 300 Division I head coaches at the time), he planned to turn around things soon. You couldn't miss his passion or commitment, so I kept an eye on the Camels.

And he was right. Over the next four seasons, Coach Laing led the team to a record of 48-71, culminating with last season's finish of 14-16. It might not sound like much, yet from where he and the program started, it was tremendous improvement, something that has carried through to the 2009-10 squad. Campbell is 11-5 overall with a 6-1 mark that leads the Atlantic Sun, a conference formerly known as the Trans-America Athletic Conference (I, and others, affectionately changed that to the "Trans-Intergallatic Conference," and I still use that today). Quite a turnaround.

Of course, as sometimes happens, the schedule gets much tougher immediately. Coach Laing and the Camels travel to perennial league contender Belmont on Thursday night (the Bruins are 112-42 in the A-Sun over the past eight seasons), then follow that up with road games at Lipscomb and East Tennessee State. To come out on top, Campbell needs to get big games from forward Jonathan Rodriguez, but, of course, that's nothing new.

Mr. Double-Double (he has 48 of those in his career) is 15 points shy of becoming the school's all-time leading scorer, which is appropriate, since he already is the top rebounder in the Division I era (since 1977-78). At only 6-foot-5, J-Rod is in the right place time and time again to pull down a crucial rebound or make a great play. He is the reigning A-Sun Player of the Week, the second time this season he has received the honor. Rodriguez averages 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds, shoots 53.3 percent from the field and 78.2 percent from the line, steps outside to convert 38.6 percent of his 3s and finds time to add 1.63 steals. He's all-around stud on the court.

Hopefully, J-Rod, Coach Laing and the Camels have a wonderful trip to Tennessee. I'll keep you posted.

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