Toughness could be Maryland Eastern Shore’s ticket to its first NCAA tournament

Maryland Eastern Shore guard Ciani Byrom looks to drive past a North Carolina A&T defender on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Greensboro, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops)
Maryland Eastern Shore guard Ciani Byrom looks to drive past a North Carolina A&T defender on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019 in Greensboro, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops) /

Tracking the rise of a MEAC power.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Like a flash, Ciani Byrom grabbed a rebound and went coast to coast, bolting towards a pack of North Carolina A&T defenders. Just before she reached the baseline, after leaving her defenders in the dust, Byrom elevated and lofted the ball towards the glass.

The ball kissed the backboard and fell softly through the hoop. Fred Batchelor kicked out his right leg and brought it down with a forceful stomp that was heard in the rafters of the Corbett Sports Center. The Maryland Eastern Shore head coach gritted through his teeth: “Yes!”

He couldn’t contain his excitement. His Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks had come all the way back at the end of the third quarter, erasing a 14-point deficit. They now led the North Carolina A&T Aggies, leaders of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, by one point.

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But the joy wouldn’t last. Starters had played most of the third quarter and — it was obvious — the Hawks were simply out of gas. Foul trouble added to Eastern Shore’s woes. The Aggies’ band played loud and proud as Batchelor, Byrom and the Hawks shuffled off the court Monday night, stuck in second place.

“I just don’t think we really played well enough to win tonight, at the end of the day. You got to play better than that,” Batchelor said. “Even though we made our run and put ourselves in position, it takes a lot out of you. That’s why it’s good to be up by 14 (points). So, fatigue plays a factor in some of the breakdowns mentally.”

But Maryland Eastern Shore showed itself something Monday night, especially in that third quarter.

The Hawks can play with the Aggies. Down by 14, a lesser team would’ve folded at halftime. If the Hawks have the right mix of hardnosed play, energy and rebounding — plus a few three-pointers for good measure — they can beat the Aggies.

This team is no longer a cellar-dweller in the MEAC.

For the first time in a while, it feels like the Hawks have a real chance of winning the MEAC and punching their first ticket to the NCAA tournament.

Despite that loss, just the Hawks’ third in their last 15 games, they remain confident. Monday in Greensboro just wasn’t their night. Even though they grew tired in the fourth quarter, the Hawks showed their best in the third.

Byrom was slicing by defenders, RaJean Martin was hitting threes, Keyera Eaton was doing a little bit of everything, the Hawks were relentlessly crashing the glass and Batchelor was keeping the energy up on the sidelines. The Hawks outscored the Aggies 24-10 in that third period.

“I just enjoy watching her play,” Batchelor said of Byrom’s go-ahead lay-up in the third quarter. “I was really a fan of that moment, more than anything. The bucket was big, but the play was great to watch. I tell these kids, we have to enjoy this experience. It may not always go the way you want it to go, but we have to take this and help make us better, and look forward to the next opportunity to play against a championship-level team.”

The world of women’s college basketball hasn’t ever paid much attention to Maryland Eastern Shore, largely because the Hawks have never given them a reason too.

Based in Princess Anne, Maryland — a tiny town in the state’s poorest county on the Delmarva Peninsula, with a population of less than 4,000 people — the historically black university has never been known for women’s hoops. Decades ago, it made its mark in football, but the school scrapped its team in 1980. This is where NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Art Shell went to school, as did Super Bowl champs Johnny Sample and Emerson Boozer. In the 1970s, the Hawks had a solid men’s basketball team and in 1974 became the first squad from an HBCU to make the NIT — which was a much bigger deal in those days than it is today. The late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons — you know him from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band — is also a former Hawk.

Most recently in athletics, the Hawks’ greatest accomplishments have come in the bowling lanes, where they’ve won three NCAA championships since 2008.

Women’s basketball started up at Maryland Eastern Shore in 1981. Since then, the Hawks have had five winning seasons.

Batchelor believes that this team is different from ones he’s had in the past. If everything breaks right and they play their best, they could hang a women’s basketball banner in the rafters of the William P. Hytche Athletic Center. There’s definitely room for it.

Fred Batchelor watches from the sidelines as his Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks battle North Carolina A&T on Feb. 11, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops)
Fred Batchelor watches from the sidelines as his Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks battle North Carolina A&T on Feb. 11, 2019. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops) /

A native of Buffalo, New York and a graduate of the University of Valley Forge, Batchelor became the head coach of the Hawks in the 2004-05 season. He’s consistently put a decent product on the floor and has just two seasons under his belt where the Hawks didn’t have double-digit wins. In nine of his previous 14 seasons at the helm, his teams have posted .500 records or better in conference play.

But what has eluded Batchelor and the Hawks has been hardware. Just once have his Hawks made the MEAC tournament final. And for HBCUs, to get into the NCAA tournament, winning the conference tourney is a must.

But why does he think this team is different? Why does this team have the potential to pull off what others couldn’t? He had three answers for that question.

“CiCi Byrom, Keyera Eaton and RaJean Martin. It’s those three kids,” Batchelor said. “They’re my four-year seniors and it’s a special thing to have kids for four years that stick with you, work on their game, try to develop and buy-in. And they’ve bought into me and I’m completely sold on them. I told them that everything happens for a reason. I’m just optimistic that (losing to North Carolina A&T) is going to make us a better basketball team.”

Martin is the best outside shooter on the team and one of the MEAC’s top snipers. She can change a game when she gets on a roll from outside. The 5-foot-5 guard from Jacksonville, Florida is shooting 38.2 percent from behind the arc this season, good enough for second on the team and fourth in the MEAC. She’s also vocal on the court, always willing to let her teammates know where they need to be.

Eaton is a versatile Swiss-army knife type of player who can score inside and out while also racking up rebounds, assists and steals. She’s also one of Batchelor’s top defenders. The 5-foot-8 guard from Winston-Salem, North Carolina is second on the team in scoring with 10.5 points per-game and third in rebounding with 4.5 boards per-game.

Byrom is the engine that makes the Hawks go. The 5-foot-5 pint-sized point guard is tougher than a two-dollar steak and quicker than John Wayne’s draw. At times, she is unguardable, but even when a defender gets a hand or a shoulder or a hip on her, Byrom doesn’t seem bothered. Not only is she the Hawks’ top scorer and passer, she’s their toughest player, too. In per-game marks, she’s seventh in the MEAC in scoring with 15.6 points and second in assists with 5.1. She’s also first in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8), seventh in three-point percentage (32.8) and sixth in free throw percentage (75.2). The Winston-Salem native’s assists totals rank in the top 50 this season among all Division I players.

Head coach Fred Batchelor talks to the Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks during a timeout on Feb. 11, 2019 in Greensboro, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops)
Head coach Fred Batchelor talks to the Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks during a timeout on Feb. 11, 2019 in Greensboro, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / High Post Hoops) /

As a team, the Hawks rank in the top 40 in the country in a few categories, including free throw attempts, offensive rebounds per-game and three-point attempts.

In total rebounds, they are eighth in Division I, grabbing 1,056 boards this season.

When looking at the Hawks’ roster, that statistic is a bit stunning, considering there are zero Hawks taller than 6-foot-2. Among the teams ahead of them in rebounding — Troy, Notre Dame, Miami, Wright State, Texas Tech, Baylor and USF — each team has at least two players that tall. Some have as many as five.

But where the Hawks like in size, they make up for it in grit.

“Toughness. We got some tough kids,” Batchelor said when asked about the rebounds. “Bairesha Gill-Miles is a fierce competitor. Dominique Walker is a special athlete. And I think (Ksenia Popovich) does a good job of blocking out, which allows other kids to get the ball.”

Gill-Miles, last year’s MEAC Rookie of the Year, is just 6-foot, but can jump out of the gym. She, Walker and Popovich have combined to average 17.1 rebounds and about a block and a half per-game.

“That’s the one thing we try to hang our hat on,” Batchelor said. “We may not be a better team, or the bigger team, but we want to be the toughest team. That’s how we’ve gotten to this point so far.”

Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the Hawks are 14-11 overall and 10-2 in MEAC play, with their only conference defeats coming at the hands of the Aggies.

It’s possible that Maryland Eastern Shore and the North Carolina A&T could meet next month in Norfolk’s Scope Arena for the MEAC title. Do the Hawks want another crack at the Aggies?

“I don’t know, but I do,” Batchelor said. “And they say teams carry the characteristics of their head coach, so, I’m hoping (the players) feel the same way. I’m looking forward to it.”