March 28, 2017

CARTERVILLE — Kyle Smithpeters doesn’t find fault, he finds a way.

The three-time Great Rivers Athletic Conference (GRAC) “Coach of the Year” had a number of reasons to explain away a losing season this year, only his team went 24-7.

In addition, his team won the GRAC title and the Region 24 regular season title.

But the road to this season’s success wasn’t easy.

Early on, Smithpeters lost two starters — his two top players — who, together, were contributing 35 points and 22 rebounds a game. Both players had medical issues.

Then, a former Vols’ assistant coach, who was beloved by players, died in a car accident.

“The entire start of the season was emotionally difficult for everyone, Smithpeters said.

By Dec. 5, the Vols had already lost four games and they were sputtering along at 2-2 in league play.

It was at that point, Smithpeters said, he had to reach out to his assistant coaches, including Zach Carpenter, more than he had had to at any other time leading into his fifth season as the Vols’ head coach.

“We sat down with the team and explained that under the circumstances, we had every excuse to not be very good this season,” Smithpeters said. “But we also told the team that it was up to them whether or not they ever wanted to use those excuses.”

It was then, Smithpeters said, that he saw the spirit of his team begin to change. “You could tell, this was a team that wanted to prove a lot of people wrong,” Smithpeters said.

Said Smithpeters, “We weren’t playing checkers any longer, we were playing chess. And our game of chess had to be really good.”

As the team elevated its play, Jalen Perry, a sophomore from Louisville, Ky., took a leadership role. The 6’3” Perry would eventually be named GRAC and Region 24 “Player of the Year” averaging nearly 20 points per game, including hitting 46 percent from the three-point line.

“Someone always has to step up and help a team maintain its composure,” Smithpeters said. “Jalen proved he was a leader. He proved he had strong leadership skills when we needed it the most.”

As a team, the Vols were third in the nation in three-point shooting hitting 41.4 percent and in the top 25 in field goal percentage at 49.7 percent.

The tide was beginning to turn for the Vols when, on Jan. 11, Smithpeters picked up his 100th win as head coach at John A. Logan College and the Vols were 11-4 on the season.

“I had gotten so lost in the season that I didn’t know what all the fuss was in the locker room after the game,” Smithpeters said. “Suddenly, I was presented the game ball and told I had 100 wins. I was honestly shocked. We had a good win that night and I was already thinking about the next game. Things were turning in the right direction for us by then and that’s what I was focused on.”

Standing next to Smithpeters was Carpenter.

“He had helped me handle a lot of tough situations with our team by this time in the season,” Smithpeters said. “Any successful program is going to have strong support staff. You just can’t do it by yourself.”

Charlie Jones and Nathen Richards were also playing major roles in keeping the team directed towards winning games.

“We were doing a lot with much less than we had expected when the season began,” Smithpeters said. “But we weren’t focusing on what we didn’t have any longer, we were focused on on getting the next win. We were starting to see that it was entirely possible that we could win the league.”

Said Smithpeters, “The start of the season was tough and these guys could have caved. And we would have had a good excuse. But I am very proud of this team for not caving in. A lot teams would not have had the resilience that this team did.”

But, Smithpeters said, he was lucky.

“I’m lucky to have a great coaching staff,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have Greg Starrick as an athletic director. I’m lucky that we had players who didn’t know the meaning of giving up. These are the people I give the credit to for having such a great season.”

After his fifth year as head coach, Smithpeters is 113-45 with a 71.5 percent winning percentage.

The Vols will lose Perry and seven other players to graduation. Recruiting for next year’s team is well underway.

“John A. Logan College is a great place to play sports,” Smithpeters said. “All eight of the players I am losing are going on to play at four-year schools. This also compounds the success of this season to see our players going on to being even more successful.”

According to “coachstat.net," Carpenter is ranked number nine in the nation as top junior college assistant coaches. Smithpeters is ranked 11 among head coaches.

“I’m looking forward to next season as head coach of the Vols,” Smithpeters said. “Our goal is to win a national championship.”

And no one is looking for an excuse why they can’t.