No leadership. A bit of bad luck. Squandered talent, skills far too raw and youthful to translate into success.
Ronnie Baylark, a 2014 Crestview alumnus, didn’t mince words when describing the 2014-2015 campaign for the Marion Military Institute men’s basketball team.
Sure, the 6-foot-1 guard posted solid numbers as a freshman – 12 points, four rebounds and three assists per game. Yet the Tigers finished 0-11 in the North Division of the Alabama Community College Conference.
“It should have been 0-12 had it not been for the weather,” Marion coach Philip Stitt laughed. “Even Mother Nature defeated us.”
Further clouding the season was an eight-game skid to cap an 8-19 campaign devoid of any postseason acclaim.
“We had one sophomore, so we lacked that leadership,” Baylark said humbly. “We didn’t realize how hard to work in practice everyday, how hard you have to go to be successful. We just lacked experience.
“It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
He wasn’t alone.
Five freshman left. Six stayed.
Of the latter camp was Baylark, who met with the returning sophomores prior to the season.
“We all talked about how this shouldn’t define us,” Baylark said. “I wanted one more shot. We wanted one more shot.”
The underdog narrative was perpetuated by the release of the ACCC basketball preseason rankings. The Tigers were picked 10th out of 15 teams. Even that seemed generous.
Flash forward to March, and the Tigers were no longer bottom dwellers. Far from it, actually.
The Tigers went on a mid-season 15-game win streak, finished the regular season 21-6 and, from 0-11 to 9-3, placed second in the North Division.
Of course the ultimate barometer of success – the ACCC Tournament – loomed.
The Tigers toppled Faulkner State 62-49, then survived Chattahoochee Valley in a 67-61 win. A 64-63 victory over Shelton State later, the Tigers were dancing at the NJCAA Division I tournament.
Eventually they lost to McLennan 78-70 in the first round, capping an improbable turnaround no one outside of the six sophomores saw coming.
At the center, of course, was Baylark, who was switched from point guard to the wing to begin the season.
Why? His scoring touch had something to with it.
“We wanted to utilize his shooting ability on the wing,” Stitt said. “We wanted to set him up. He’s just so gifted a scorer.”
From the outset he proved a natural fit, a perfect compliment to fellow wing Christian Bradford (18.5 points per game). Through the first four games Baylark averaged 18 points a night on 54 percent shooting.
“It was an adjustment, but it’s nice to have your teammates always looking for you,” Baylark said.
He was just heating up.
During the 15-game win streak following a 5-3 start, Baylark shot 55 percent from the floor and averaged nearly 20 a night.
“He didn’t complain a bit about the move and we thrived in his versatility,” Stitt said. “We asked him to play the 2, 3, 4 and the 1 during the course of a game, and he did what we asked him to do. I think I wore him down a bit toward the end of the season because he was so determined to win he’d play anywhere I asked him.”
By season’s end he produced 15.8 points a night on 56-percent shooting from inside the arc and a 35-percent clip from 3 to accent four rebounds per game.
For Baylark, the scoring efficiency was central to one facet: repetition.
“We have a shooting gun down here and I’m out there an hour before and after practice,” he said. “All the great shooters will tell you it’s about repetition.”
Like high school, where he was named Daily News Player of the Year his senior year after leading Crestview to a second straight elite eight, the postseason honors followed.
Baylark was named first team all-conference and all-region, honors that will soon land him a new team.
“He’s getting some D-1 nibbles,” Stitt said, “but he’ll definitely have his college paid off with two more years of basketball. He’s getting a lot of interest right now but he’s yet to make any visits.”
So what’s your dream school, Ronnie?
“I need to sit down and talk with my parents and take my time with the decision,” he said. “I really don’t want to say right now without making any visits, because it really depends on the campus and the team and the fit.”
Wherever he goes, there’s no longer that bad taste in his mouth.
“At the end of the day I’m proud of what we did from a team-perspective,” Baylark said. “You always feel like you could have done something more, something better, but I’m happy.
“Now I’m just looking forward to the next step.”