Milligan College coach Bill Robinson never bought into the preseason hype surrounding his basketball team.
When the Buffs were picked to defend their Appalachian Athletic Conference championship, Robinson said he thought fourth or fifth was more realistic. Now that even looks a bit optimistic.
Milligan heads into the last week of the regular season at sixth in the AAC, with a record of 5-9. The Buffs are 9-15 overall after losing three of their last four games.
“I think the early expectations were based on our record last season,” Robinson said Thursday. “We had some good players left from that team, but I thought all along that we’d need to play well to be in the top half of the league.
“Tyler DeVault has been really good, and Kyle (Grisby) has played well. We just never found that third guy to be an impact player on a consistent basis.”
The Buffs can still make a late statement this weekend. They host Tennessee Wesleyan on Saturday, and the Bulldogs lead the conference with an 11-2 mark.
Milligan wraps up the regular season against Point next Saturday.
“We’re looking for anything positive right now,” said Robinson. “We just have two games left, and they’re both at home. We have a chance to take some momentum into the tournament.”
The AAC playoffs begin Feb. 20.
The Buffs lost the first meeting with Wesleyan 82-75 on Jan. 14. DeVault, their junior forward, scored 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
“We played pretty well down there,” said Robinson. “We just ran out of gas late; their depth hurt us. We play a lot better in our building, and hopefully our crowd can give us the energy to carry us through this time.”
Robinson said the Bulldogs have gotten to the top of the standings with their athleticism and ability to force tempo.
“They press in a time when not too many teams press and do it well,” he said. “They’re playing really well right now.”
The Bulldogs, who were picked sixth in the preseason poll, don’t have much margin for error if they want to win the regular-season title. They lead Reinhardt by just one game.
n The Milligan women are in a similar position Saturday – trying to play spoiler against front-running Wesleyan.
The Lady Buffs are also sixth in the league, at 7-8, while the Lady Bulldogs are 12-3 and nursing a one-game lead over Montreat.
Milligan coach Rich Aubrey admits his team has never really been on solid footing for long.
“We’ve certainly had our share of ups and downs,” he said Thursday. “I told the team this week that I still feel like I’m searching for a magic button. Whether it’s motivational or strategic, I’m not really sure. I don’t know what it will take to get our team to play like it’s capable of playing.”
The Lady Buffs (15-12 overall) have three league games remaining. They’ll play at Columbia College on Wednesday night before wrapping up the regular season at home against Point next Saturday.
Of course, beating 18th-ranked Wesleyan (19-7) would be a major boost. The Lady Bulldogs won the first matchup 63-59.
“We played very well down there; both teams played well and it could have gone either way,” said Aubrey. “They’re a pretty complete offensive team, with size, people who can shoot on the perimeter, people who can take the ball to the basket. They’re very good.”
n The softball season started with a double dose of what-ifs for the Lady Buffs.
They were swept in a double-header at Lincoln Memorial last Friday, 3-2 and 4-2, and had a two-lead in each game. Three errors led to three unearned runs late in the nightcap.
“They’re an NCAA Division II team, but we should have won both of them,” said coach Wes Holly, who is starting his 24th season at Milligan. “We had seven walks in the first game and stranded nine runners. We didn’t hit the ball very well, and that was disappointing.”
Sophomore Chancli Connaster is the team’s ace and surrendered just one earned run in the opener, with six strikeouts. Samantha Mahala, the freshman from Mountain City, was the hard-luck loser in the second game.
Both pitchers will be mainstays this season, said Holly. Another freshman, Megan Nicol of British Columbia, will also get her share of time in the circle.
“Chancli is going to have to carry the torch for us,” said Holly, “but I’m hopeful we’ll have a strong pitching staff.”
The team returned eight starters and was picked second in the AAC preseason poll. There are only three seniors on the roster.
Holly is used to being in contention. He passed the 700-victory plateau last season.
“It’s probably going to be a run between us and Reinhardt this season,” he said. “Union may be in there, too. We’re just going to have get a few games under our belts to see what we’ve got.”
The Lady Buffs have six games scheduled for next week, beginning with a double-header at Virginia-Wise on Monday.