As college basketball programs around the country played their 2020-21 seasons amid the pandemic, Mike Ingram could do nothing but watch from the sidelines.
Lansing Community College, in an effort to combat the spread of the virus, had decided to cancel its fall and winter sports entirely.
And to make matters worse for Ingram — the men's basketball coach for the past 30 years — he was also part of numerous temporary staff furloughs at the school, which severely limited contact with his players during an uncertain time.
“All of the sudden you’ve got all these kids that I can’t talk to,” Ingram said. “Their first 2-3 months they were on campus — I had recruited them online because of the pandemic — I hadn’t met any of the kids yet.
“It was really tough for me because it was really tough for the kids to be in school and not have anybody to turn to.”
But sports are back at LCC this year.
And the Stars have quickly put a year of lost basketball development and team-building behind them. LCC won its first six games and sits at 9-4 heading into Saturday's conference road game against Grand Rapids Community College.
“I think the guys are confident,” Ingram said. “To be pretty good, you have to be pushed, you have to be challenged and you have to be coached. You have to – as teammates – push each other. It takes a lot to win at the college level. It takes a lot to win a championship.
“(Once) they become great teammates on the floor and off the floor, when they’re saying the right things, we’re going to be a really good team.”
LCC's hot start has been fueled, in part, by two talented transfers — Drew Lowder and Williamston graduate Sean Cobb. Landing the pair was no small feat for Ingram and paved the way for a quick resurgence.
Lowder, a Jackson native who started eight games for Eastern Michigan last year and was fourth on the team in scoring, has been magnificent for the Stars, averaging 20.7 points and 5.1 assists per game. He’s also been clutch, with game-winning baskets in three games that all came down to the final seconds.
“I think Drew had some things to work on and I think he needed me to help him work through those things,” Ingram said. “He needed somebody that knew him, that knew he was a competitor and sometimes can be an over-competitor. Some coaches can take that the wrong way and I wanted to try to show him how to make that a strength.”
Cobb spent two seasons at Grand Valley State, redshirting in the 2019-20 season and then seeing just 12 minutes of action over seven games last season.
He was looking for a fresh start and found it in Lansing, playing for Ingram, a coach he already had a relationship with through attending youth camps.
“It didn’t feel like a good fit for me at Grand Valley,” said Cobb, who's averaging 19 points and 8.1 rebounds. “I’ve known (Ingram) for a little while and I felt that he’d be a good guy to go to since he’s been coaching for a long time and knows what he’s doing.
“I know he can pull the best out of his players, especially with the teams that he’s had.”
Ingram — who has led LCC to more than 600 victories, 19 league championships and four national tournament appearances — initially went on furlough in October 2020 during the fall semester. He was not allowed to have any contact with his players, which meant no practices and no ability to run any sort of workout program, leaving the players to their own devices.
There was a one-month stretch where Ingram came off furlough in late 2020, but he went back on it for the Spring 2021 semester and didn’t come back off it until this past June.
“I know it was tough for me and had to be tough for them, especially when they see everybody else is playing,” Ingram said about his players.
“The kids that hung in there, they wanted to play for me. The parents wanted them to play for me. Of the guys that did hang in, most of them have been starters all year. They’re getting rewarded for that."
When Ingram was out of the mix, players such as freshman Cole Krause, a Potterville graduate whose first season was supposed to be last year, were forced to make conditioning plans on their own. Krause is one of those guys that “hung in there" and he's been the Stars’ third-leading scorer this season at 14.4 points a game.
Krause found refuge last year at The Barn in Holt for workouts.
“I was able to just continue to lift and keep getting shots up during the time everything was in lockdown,” Krause said. “For a lot of student-athletes, their sport is keeping them motivated. ... Obviously, your education is the most important, but when you don’t have the sport aspect it really dials you into being the student part of the athlete. That’s something that was challenging to do, too.”
LCC’s roster is full of local flavor. Seven players are from Greater Lansing, including Cobb and Krause. Guard Zhervonte Smith (Sexton) is the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game; Kylor Mills (DeWitt) has started four games, averaging 1.9 points; Dawson Lott (Webberville) is averaging 3.5 points; Zach Berry (Grand Ledge) has played in five games; and Mitchel Skym (Corunna) is the only player on the roster that was on the 2019-20 team.
After the team’s 6-0 start and an appearance in the NJCAA Division II rankings, the Stars endured a three-game losing streak to fall out of the polls before beating Jackson College on Saturday.
“We got in the rankings and then we became a little cocky,” Smith said. “We thought (we could quit doing) the little things that got us to the record we had. And we stopped listening to coach a little more, but this three-game streak humbled us quickly."
LCC hit a couple of speed bumps in a pair of losses to Mott CC and another to St. Clair County CC, teams Ingram cited as veteran squads that had the luxury of playing a full season in 2020-21.
"We’re playing against teams with players that have freshman (eligibility-wise due to COVID), but they’re sophomores," Ingram said. "They’re really playing against guys that played in college before and are a little more veteran."
But there’s a belief this team is capable of winning championships, in conference play and beyond. The Stars are 1-1 in the Michigan Community College Athletic Association Western Conference, which is just now starting the meat of its schedule.
“We’re just trying to work out the kinks to be the championship team that coach sees,” Krause said. “I don’t think we should lose another conference game. I feel like we’ve got our losses out of the way and we learn from there."
Contact digital sports reporter Phil Friend at 517-377-1220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Phil_Friend.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Lansing CC men's basketball off to hot start after missing last year