BILLINGS, Mont. — Yellowstone Christian College Head Coach Leonard Epps knew from the beginning of the year he would be facing an uphill battle. He returned only eight student-athletes from the inaugural year for the second year of the program. On top of rebuilding the identity of his team due to a massive freshman class, the Centurions spent countless hours on the road, seeing only nine games at home during the 2016-2017 season.
The Centurions saw growing pains in their first couple months of the year. After plastering Fort Peck Community College in their first game of the year, YCC went on a six-game losing skid. The Centurions beat Fort Peck again to snap their losing streak but were never able to establish any lengthy string of wins until the end of the season when they won six straight, including the first round of the Christian College National Invitational Tournament.
YCC, essentially, was an honorary member of the Frontier Conference, playing every Frontier Conference school at least once with the exception of Carroll College. The Centurions faired well against their NAIA Division I opponents, although they were never able to find their way into the win column against them. However, when asked, Epps strongly believes his team should have won at least four of those games.
In addition to facing nearly every Frontier opponent, the Centurions also matched up against two NCAA Division II opponents for the first time in program history, facing the University of Mary and Black Hills State University in the same week.
With the men only hosting nine games in Billings on the year, logically, the Centurions racked up a ton of miles over the course of the season. Including their trip to Miami, Fla., over Christmas break and their trip to Oakland City, Ind., for postseason play, the Centurion amassed 13,787 miles in six months of competition. Additionally, the Centurions played in every time zone in the continental United States.
After nearly splitting their season evenly, the Centurions headed into the Christian College National Invitation Tournament in Indiana with an 11-14 record and were seeded fifth in the tournament. Despite the seeding, Epps and his team were optimistic for the weekend.
In the opening round, the Centurions ran headlong into a surprisingly talented and inspired Queen City Christian College team. After a dogfight of a first half, the Centurions flexed their depth muscles and slowly built an insurmountable lead and claimed an 84-69 victory.
YCC advanced to the semifinal and were matched up with the host team and heavy favorite Oakland City University. Although the Centurions ended up losing the game by eight in a very tightly contested ballgame, the outcome would have been much different, according to Epps, if the officiating would have been even. The Centurions shot a mere four free throws total for the game; the Mighty Oaks saw 37 shots from the free throw stripe. After the final buzzer sounded and the box score was posted online, the lopsided officiating became the talk of the tournament.
Despite the unfavorable turn of events in the semis, the Centurions returned to the floor on Saturday night as an inspired bunch in their final game of the season. Rhema College, who was seeded first in the tournament, proved to be a challenge for the Centurions throughout much of the first half. However, the depth of the Centurions proved to be the difference in an 11-point victory, allowing YCC to return to Montana with the third place trophy in hand.
By season’s end, the Centurions saw immense growth in every facet of the game on every side of the ball. Unfortunately, reigning NCCAA West Region Player of the Year Keegan Oyugi was lost for the year due to off-season knee surgery, leaving a massive hole to be filled. Fittingly, a band of freshmen led the way for YCC in 2016-2017.
Aaron Munday-Rashid established himself as an elite scorer over the course of the year, ending the season averaging 12.4 points per game.
Taylan Barrett led the team in rebounding with 4.8 boards per game, in steals at 1.5 per game, and in blocks with 1.5 per game. He was also third on the team in scoring, averaging 11.4 points per contest.
Physical size was an advantage for the Centurions this season Abraham Nyok, a 6-foot-8 Australian, and sophomore Osondu Kelvinson, a 6-foot-10 Nigerian, were dominating figures in the paint, giving the Centurions a continual presence down low. Nyok tied a CCNIT record with an 18-board performance in the opening round of the tournament. Unfortunately, that record stood for just over 24 hours, as a player from Southwestern Adventist University pulled down an incredible 22-rebound showing the next day.
Epps relied heavily on returning point guard Stefan Tellis to fill the shoes of Oyugi, and Tellis delivered with quiet, consistent play. Tellis co-led the team with 1.5 assists per game and was second on the team in steals with 1.2 per contest.
Sophomore E.J. Soft found his offensive rhythm late in the year, gaining confidence after hours spent with Assistant Coach and offensive specialist Mike Rose early in the year. Soft’s best showing came during the CCNIT, where he knocked down two clutch jump shots on two consecutive trips down the floor to push the momentum back to the Centurions.
Epps is very optimistic about the future of YCC basketball. Next season, he will return every player from this year’s squad, return Oyugi, and add pieces to the puzzle courtesy of incoming freshmen and players who redshirted this season. Stay tuned to www.gocenturions.com and all Centurion social media outlets for off-season news, player signings, and schedule announcements.