By John Bombatch
CEDARVILLE — The schools are about five miles apart. But in terms of respect, the two schools are even closer than that.
Wilberforce University has a student enrollment of around 700; Cedarville has 3,600.
The Wilberforce Bulldogs are a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)-sanctioned Division II school.
Cedarville’s Yellow Jackets are now a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)-sanctioned D-II program.
The host Yellow Jackets were expected to win on Thursday night over their relatively smaller neighbor, and they did by a 79-39 count. But both coaches said the game was more about two area programs enjoying a chance to play each other, than it was about adding a win or a loss to their season.
Wilberforce coach Iesha Gray said when she first got her start as the Bulldogs coach eight years ago, she leaned on Cedarville coach Kirk Martin and his staff, and Cedarville sports information director Mark Womack, to get herself established.
“I leaned on them to show me the ropes as far as what it took to coach at this level, and then also the little idiosyncrasies of scheduling and learning how to input statistics accurately, all those things,” Gray said. “A lot of the blueprints that I got, to get established as a coach, it was because of them.
“We share our Faith together. My first four or five years, we had the luxury of doing a lot of things together and getting along a lot. We would have open gyms together. I think the girls hung out and did Bible studies together, we would exchange gifts and words of encouragement whenever we would play each other, when we were both in the AMC (American Midwest Conference).”
Martin said there are a couple reasons why the Yellow Jackets will always make room on their schedule for Wilberforce.
“One, we like to play Wilberforce, we definitely do. And two, from a financial standpoint it’s a win-win for both of us. There’s no travel, we’re both here already. These kinds of games are good for both of our schools,” he said.
Martin didn’t know whether his players were as close as the teams had been when Gray first got her coaching feet wet, but said he knew that some of them kept in touch on social media.
Cedarville had outgrown its small-school NAIA roots and joined the NCAA as a Division II school in the 2012-‘13 season, but that hasn’t kept the teams from playing each other.
“I think it helps Wilberforce in that you can always learn from playing a bigger school. And any time you play a local team, there are a lot of positives involved in that. We will never want to not be affiliated with Wilberforce. They mean a lot to us, and we want them to be a part of who we are,” Martin said.
The two teams gathered at center court for a moment of prayer after Thursday’s game.
Thursday’s games at Cedarville also served as a scouting tool for the Wilberforce men’s team. Cedarville hosted Bluefield (W.Va.) State College in the night game. Bluefield State will play Wilberforce at 7 p.m. Saturday on the Wilberforce University campus. The Bulldogs’ DeVontae Berry is just 17 points shy of reaching the 1,000-point mark of his career and could potentially hit the mark on Saturday.
The Yellow Jacket men (6-9) jumped out to an early 10-0 lead over Bluefield State, and held on for a 77-72 win Thursday night.
Cedarville’s women’s team (12-5) travels to the Cleveland suburb of Pepper Pike to play Ursuline College at 2 p.m. Saturday. The men’s team will be in Vienna, W. Va. to take on Ohio Valley at 4 p.m. that same day.
The next time on the court for Wilberforce’s women’s team (3-17) will be Jan. 23 when they will host the University of Rio Grande for a 3 p.m. game.