Huntingdon Hawks: Hidden Hoops

By on 28 March, 2014 in Fun, Interviews, Kate and Stephen with 2 Comments

College basketball is on nearly every television this time of year. “March Madness” has become an iconic (and expensive) national brand. Even households that don’t follow basketball suddenly find themselves talking about “bubbles” and RPI rankings.

Senior Guard Jason Varney

Huntingdon Senior Guard Jason Varney; photo courtesy Huntingdon Sports Information Dept.

But step away from the media blather about brackets and “Cinderellas” for a moment and reflect for a moment on college basketball — the game, not the giant corporation. It’s a simple game of properly executed plays: a well-set screen, a properly threaded pass, a dialed-in outside shooter.

It turns out, the beautiful game is being played at a high level in our neighborhood. And the games are free.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the local newspaper, but Huntingdon basketball just finished a great year. They were in the finals of the conference tournament. Two of their players were named to the All-Tournament team (sort of like an All-Star team for the whole conference tournament). Austin Hill, a Senior Forward, was a first team selection on the All-Conference team, representing a dominant season.

If you don’t know much about Division III, here are some basics: There are no athletic scholarships. Some of the schools are pretty small, and even if you follow college sports pretty closely, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of some of them. Wisconsin-Whitewater is a powerhouse in both football and basketball. But unfamiliar institutional names don’t make the games any less exciting, like the just-completed basketball finals in which Wisconsin-Whitewater (which is in Whitewater, WI, obviously) won a nail-biter over the Ephs of Williams College (which is in Williamstown, MA). That’s not a typo, by the way. They really are called the “Ephs” (rhymes with “chiefs.”)

Huntingdon’s conference is called the USA South, and they faced LaGrange College (which is in LaGrange, GA) in the finals of the conference tournament this year. The Hawks may have been edged in the finals by the Panthers, but it was still a great year for Huntingdon Basketball.

Coach Mike Pugh just completed his 7th year as the Hawks head coach, and was pleased with the team’s late-season run. And when you can impress someone that has coached basketball in Alabama for over 40 years, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Huntingdon Head Basketball Coach Mike Pugh;

Huntingdon Head Basketball Coach Mike Pugh; Photo courtesy Huntingdon SID

He and assistant coach Tommy Bracknell took some time away from recruiting to sit down with Midtown Montgomery Living and talk about the Huntingdon Program.

On Huntingdon’s basketball program history: Huntingdon’s longest tenured head basketball coach was a name nearly synonymous with Huntingdon sports. Neil Posey, also the Athletic Director at Huntingdon until 1985, ran the basketball team for 22 years (1957-1979) and his name is now on the school’s baseball field. Pugh and Bracknell said that although it was before their time on campus, they thought Huntingdon dropped basketball for a few years in the 1980s, before reviving the program in the 1990s.

The revitalized program had great success under Coach Tony Duckworth from 2001-2007. Duckworth, now the Athletic Director at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, accumulated the second most wins in Huntingdon hoops history and led his team to win both the 2006 Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) Regular Season and Tournament Championships. That year the Hawks compiled a 20-7 record and set the Division III record in defensive field goal percentage (35.4%). Duckworth was named GSAC Coach of the Year, but departed shortly thereafter for Division II’s Maryville University in St. Louis.

Pugh took the reins not long after that and brought in Bracknell, who he knew from his days coaching high school hoops.

On coaching at the Division III level: “In Division III, it’s academics first, athletics second. Huntingdon is a great place to provide exactly that. It is an absolutely great place to get an education,” Pugh said. “Some players get scholarships and want to play Division I or Division II ball, or play in junior college — and even in NAIA, there are partial scholarships. But a lot of players will get a scholarship offer and still want that small, private school setting and will turn down the scholarship for the unique experience we can provide.”

“A lot of people don’t realize that there are more D3 schools than there are D1 and D2 put together,” Pugh said.

He’s nearly right. There are 449 schools competing in Division III athletics, while only 282 full or provisional members of Division II. It all gets extremely complicated when counting, but the point is that there are a ton of great schools out there offering competition for schools like Huntingdon.

“A lot of folks around here don’t know as much about D3 because there aren’t as many of them in the south,” Pugh said. “Florida doesn’t have any. Alabama only has two (Birmingham Southern is the other). Georgia only has a couple (Piedmont, LaGrange, Covenant College, Emory, etc.). That means we have to travel a good bit for our schedule, but the competition is good.”

On recruiting: “It’s always big for us when the deadlines comes in the second week of April for commitments to Division I and Division II schools. That way, we know who is going where from the available players,” Pugh said. “We were recently able recruit a junior college kid who wants to go to med school and Huntingdon is a great place to go if you want to do something like that.”

Huntingdon Asst. Basketball Coach Tommy Bracknell; Photo courtesy Huntingdon SID

Huntingdon Asst. Basketball Coach Tommy Bracknell; Photo courtesy Huntingdon SID

On basketball strategy and coaching: “You might be surprised to know that there is a lot of in-season turnover on the roster here,” Pugh said. “Since there are no scholarships, sometimes people get to campus and realize that they might be in a different financial situation than they planned, so it’s not uncommon to have people in the starting lineup decide not to go to school anymore – or to take a semester off.”

That means Pugh and Bracknell can’t be too wedded to a particular system or set of X’s and O’s.

“If you’re going to have any success, you have to be able to adapt to the talent you have,” Bracknell said. “Sometimes you don’t even know your real strengths until the season gets underway.”

On rivalries: “Of course it’s big every time we play Birmingham Southern,” Pugh said. “They’re the other Division III school in the state and those games are well-attended and highly-anticipated. But we get up for all of our conference games and there are some great competitors in the USA South Conference.”

“Also, we always schedule Alabama State for an exhibition at the start of every season. Those games are extremely popular because of the in-town aspect. We’re 0-2 against them so far, but even though they are Division I, we have managed to keep those games close.”

On Montgomery basketball: “We have had a lot of success recruiting and retaining local basketball talent,” Pugh said. “We’ve had guys from Evangel, Carver, and St. Jude and they have been great players that also bring in a lot of fans, so that is always a point of emphasis for us when we are recruiting. There are some really great players that come out of Montgomery.”

In fact, one of the stars for Huntingdon this season was a local guy. Austin Hill won a state championship with St. Jude in 2008 before playing a year at Morehouse and then transferring back home to Huntingdon. Hill led the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game (and is majoring in biology!)

Huntingdon Senior Forward Austin Hill; Photo courtesy Huntingdon SID

Huntingdon Senior Forward Austin Hill; Photo courtesy Huntingdon SID

On going to see the Hawks: “We mostly play on Saturdays and Sundays,” Bracknell said. “It’s a fun game-day experience. We play in the afternoon and there’s no admission. If folks like basketball and want to see it played as well as we can play it, hopefully they’ll come and see a few games.”

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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  1. Stephen says:

    Update: Looking elsewhere in the Huntingdon basketball media guide, it seems like the basketball program was terminated in 1979 and revived in 1997, with Buzz Phillips as head coach. Phillips remains at Huntingdon as head coach of the Women’s basketball team.

  2. trivago says:

    And of great note and fanfare, our own David Braly and Mark Montoya, of Midtown Montgomery Living, will be receiving an Alabama Trust For Historic Preservation Rehabilitation Award for their exemplary rehabilitation of Fire House #9 on South McDonough Street in the Garden District.

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