Edmonds CC, 3-21 last season, goes into the NWAACC tournament with a 23-3 record
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Edmonds Community College point guard Ricardo Maxwell is seventh in the NWAACC scoring (20.7) and fifth in assists (5.3).
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Edmonds Community College forward Shaq McKissic is the NWAACC’s second leading scorer at 23.0 points a game and has the leagues top scoring game with 46 points against Skagit Valley College on Feb. 2. He is also third in rebounds (9.9), fifth in steals (3.1) and 18th in assists (3.7).
Certainly no one expected what happened.
Under first-year head coach Kyle Gray, and with a collection of players from here and there, the Tritons completed their regular season with a 23-3 overall record and a first-place mark of 13-1 in the North Division of Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges.
Edmonds CC's regular-season record is the best (by winning percentage) in the entire NWAACC, a four-division, 33-team league in Washington and Oregon. And at the NWAACC tournament, which begins Saturday, the Tritons will be bidding for the second league title in school history and their first since 1985.
"At the beginning of every season, you're always optimistic about what can happen if you stay healthy and if (good) things happen," Gray said. "And we knew the potential was there. But the fact that we've got this far with this much success is pretty awesome."
What makes the season even more remarkable is that Gray had to start from scratch ... sort of. Previous Edmonds CC coach Sean Higgins left after going 3-21 last season, and his departure happened about the same time Seattle CC -- where Gray had coached for eight years -- was cutting its program.
Gray was hired at Edmonds CC a week later, and brought with him four players and his staff of assistants from Seattle CC.
But the most important roster additions were two players who did not play last year. Forward Shaq McKissic, a 2009 graduate of Kentridge High School, played at Edmonds CC in 2009-10, but then sat out the last two seasons. Point guard Ricardo Maxwell, who is from Cincinnati, played one season for Gray at Seattle CC in 2010-11, but redshirted last year with a foot injury.
This season the 6-foot-4 McKissic is the NWAACC's second leading scorer at 23.0 points a game and has the league's top scoring game with 46 points against Skagit Valley College on Feb. 2. He is also third in rebounds (9.9), fifth in steals (3.1) and 18th in assists (3.7).
He is, Gray said, "a freak athlete. He can shoot from the outside, but he likes to get up and attack the basket. ... He dunks a lot. In a typical game he'll get two or three, but in some games he'll get quite a few more. And they're powerful. It's like, get out of his way or you're going to end up on a poster."
In fact, a McKissic dunk stands as the team's top highlight this season. Against Bellevue CC earlier this month, teammate Jordan Diel was leading a fast break and sensed McKissic trailing the play. Near the basket Diel flipped a looping pass back over his shoulder, "and all of a sudden Shaq comes flying through the air out of nowhere, grabs the ball and throws it down," Gray said, grinning at the memory. "It was just phenomenal."
The 5-10 Maxwell, meanwhile, is seventh in scoring (20.7) and fifth in assists (5.3). "He's a dynamic point guard," Gray said. "He can score at will (including 32 points in Saturday's regular-season finale against Everett CC), but would rather get his teammates involved."
In community college basketball, and with players "from all over the place, and from very different walks of life," team chemistry is never a sure thing, Gray said. But on this team, "their willingness to listen to each other and to bond with each other has been pretty special. And that's probably what's gotten us from being a good team to being a great team. I think that's the biggest key right there, their willingness to get along."
"Shaq and Ricardo put up big numbers for points, but they also share the ball a lot," said backup forward Jake Spade, a 2010 graduate of Meadowdale High School. "It's not like they hog the ball. They get their points, but they also help out the other players. ... We work as a team, and that's why we're winning."
McKissic, who shares a residence with Maxwell, said he knew before the season "that we were going to be good. But to almost go undefeated, that was a shock. But we kept winning game after game after game, and then it was like, OK, this is real."
The upcoming NWAACC tournament is a four-day, 16-team event at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. Edmonds CC has not qualified in recent years, so just being there is a positive step for the program. But these players and coaches want more.
"We honestly feel like we're going to win the NWAACCs," McKissic said. "We know what we have to do, we're extremely confident ... and we're not scared one bit."
"I really believe we can do it," Spade added. "With the talent we have and the confidence we have, I think we'll definitely have a good shot at it."
It will not be easy, of course. Three other teams in the tournament have 20 or more wins, and another four won at least 18 games, including Whatcom CC, which gave the Tritons their only league loss this season.
Gray acknowledged as much, but in the next moment said, "I love our chances with this group. As long as we all play together and play smart ... we know how to win. And we've done it all season, so why not keep it going for four more games?"