Last March, Pearl River coach Chris Oney was high-fived by his son, Caleb, when the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 of the National Junior College Tournament. This year, Oney and his Wildcats were the No. 1 seed to win it all.

Coach Chris Oney tried to take a philosophical approach, attempted to downplay his team’s and his disappointment. It was not an easy task. The dream season has ended for Pearl River Community College, which finished 28-0 and was selected as the No. 1 seed in the National Junior College Championship Tournament.

That national tournament, played annually at Hutchinson, Kansas, was canceled Monday because of the Coronavirus.

“I saw it coming,” Oney said in a phone conversation Monday afternoon. “So much has happened so fast. With all that was going on, this wasn’t a big shock.”

Rick Cleveland

The tournament originally was scheduled to begin this week. But last week came the news that the tournament was postponed until April 20. Monday, the postponement turned into a cancellation. The National Junior College Athletic Association announced that not only the basketball tournament has been canceled, but all junior college spring sports competition has ended as well.

“In light of the progressive evolvement of the COVID-19 situation, we decided to end all competition for the remainder of the academic year,” said Dr. Christopher Parker, NJCAA President and CEO. “The NJCAA exhausted all possible avenues to potentially postpone competition for both upcoming basketball championships and spring sports competition. We believe following the recommendations of the CDC is in the best interest of our member colleges and out student athletes.”

Oney, a former Ole Miss basketball player, said participation in sports prepares both coaches and athletes for disappointments such as the tournament cancellation.

“This is sports and sports is all about ups and downs and learning to deal with the highs and the lows,” Oney said. “Our players are of course disappointed but my message to them is that to look not at what might have happened or what could have been, but to look at what did happen and what we did achieve. What happened is we lined up 28 times against teams in a tough league and 28 times we were successful. We never lost. That’s gonna far outweigh the fact that the national tournament got canceled.”

Oney continued, “There’s no doubt that we earned the No. 1 seed and there’s no doubt we would have gone out there and played well. My biggest regret is that the rest of the country didn’t get to see what people in Mississippi saw.”

Tae Hardy, shown here slamming a dunk, was the point guard and quarterback for the undefeated PRCC Wildcats.

Pearl River won 15 of its 28 victories away from its home court. The Wildcats averaged 85 points per game and allowed only 60. They won both Mississippi and NJCAA Region 23 championships.

“We wanted to make a statement in Hutchinson by going out there and winning it all,” said Wildcats point guard Tae Hardy, who will play senior college basketball at Southern Miss. “We definitely believed we would win the national championship.”

At least Hardy and his teammates had a chance to complete the regular season and participate in post-season tournaments. Junior college spring sports athletes across the country saw their seasons end as they were just getting started. Mississippi annually has one of the best – if not the best – junior college baseball leagues in the U.S. At Pearl River, the Wildcat baseball team is ranked No. 3 in the nation in the early season poll with a 12-4 record. The NJCAA did announce that no spring sport athletes will be charged a year of eligibility for participation in the 2020 spring season.

Like his coach, Tae Hardy said he saw Monday’s news coming.

“When I saw they canceled the NBA season and then the NCAA Tournament, I just felt like it was a matter of time,” Hardy said.

Hardy was asked what he will remember most about this 30 or 40 years from now: The 28-0 season or not getting to play in the national tournament?

“I feel like we’ll all remember the season the most,” he said. “Twenty-eight and zero, that’ll never be taken away from us. We made history.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.