RALEIGH — KickBack Jacks looked on Wednesday night like any other sports bar during March Madness, with big-screen televisions tuned in to a play-in game for the NCAA Division 1 tournament or the Knicks-Pacers NBA match-up.
In the back, however, about 15 people and one giant eagle mascot watched the Triangle’s newest hometown team, Wake Technical Community College, make its run for the semifinals of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Championship.
With some technical glitches, the game streamed over the Internet from Danville, Ill., to the South Raleigh bar.
“If they go to the championship, I want to drive to out there,” said Claudia McGowan, the group’s waitress, as she made the rounds for orders. Her boyfriend, Josh Mellette, is a star forward for the team – and while she has seen him play plenty of times at the school’s new gym, his bar-televised appearance was a first.
“Usually it’s all big college teams, NBA here,” she said.
On screen, the men were pushing toward a double-digit advantage against Wayne County Community College District, the formidable Detroit team that ranks third in the division.
While the event is not part of the NCAA Division I’s Big Dance, it’s a new stage for a school that wants to redefine “community college.”
“Anytime you’re playing in March is always a good time,” said Barry Street, the school’s athletic director. “We feel like this is an opportunity for Wake Tech to show ourselves nationally, and not just regionally.”
The journey, complete with a three-hour drive in vans from Chicago O’Hare International Airport, is the longest the men’s team has taken since its debut in 2009. That means few fans are along for the ride – only spouses and staff – but the team got along fine Tuesday with its miniature cheering section.
“They just seem to play steady, and I think that’s what’s really gotten them over the hump,” Street said about this year’s team. “They don’t get too panicky when they’re down or too wild when they’re up.”
No matter the results, Street hopes national tournament victories will give the school more to offer prospective student-athletes and another focus for campus culture.
“We struggle with an identity, with all the four-year (colleges and universities) in our area, and all the great high school teams,” he said.
The new athletics program has had its challenges. It is far from filling its 1,200-seat gym, with crowds averaging about 200 per game, according to Street. Because the school doesn’t have dorms and many of its students have jobs, it’s not easy to keep crowds on campus for evening games.
Even so, the team has won a core of supporters in its short life.
On campus, “everybody’s hollering at us, congratulating us,” forward Josh Mellette said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, before the big game. “We’re well known around campus. Everybody’s a big supporter.”
Mellette, who averages 13 points a game, was player of the year for Wake Tech’s region, while Coach Joe Mitchell, a new hire, took coach-of-the-year honors.
Mellette came to Wake Tech out of a successful career at Southern Lee High School, and he hopes to use his scholarship as a stepping stone to professional play overseas and a career in sports.
“They all want to go somewhere,” his girlfriend said as she watched Wednesday’s game unfold. “I think it gives them a big opportunity.”
They took hold of that opportunity with both hands Wednesday night, defeating the Detroit team 95-72.
“You’re going to have your hands full with Wake Tech,” the announcer warned as the seconds ticked down. The Wake Tech men play again Friday at 6 p.m.
Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC