COLUMBIA — Christian Lewis and Mikel Fields laugh together during pre-practice agility drills. More laughs resonate from a hallway where four members of of the Columbia College backcourt warm up. Later, an informal dunk contest breaks out during a layup drill.
For most teams, another habitual afternoon practice isn’t something that makes players come running. But for the Cougars’ men’s basketball team, the work they put in isn’t a chore.
“Every weekend we’re always together,” freshman Jake Alexander said. “We always hang out together, we go to movies, we go chase girls, we go eat after practice, whatever we do, we’re always together.”
On the surface, that might seem surprising, considering nine of the Cougars’ 12 members are in their first season at Columbia College. Coach Bob Burchard says the team’s chemistry boils down to the simple fact that they like each other, but gives most of the credit for that to his three returning players.
“We met with each of those guys after last season, and told them they were going to be keys in changing the culture of this team,” Burchard said, referring to the disappointing 16-16 mark his squad finished with last season. “I asked them specifically to be a part of that, and I think you see they took that to heart in the way they approach the game.
The Cougars also have three players who hail from Columbia, something Rock Bridge alum Terrell Turner said is out of the ordinary for Burchard’s past teams because the coach thinks it might be a disctraction for the players. But it’s working well for this group.
“Coach talked to me, Mike, and Jason (Ellis),” Turner said. “From there, we took that as if anybody needs anything, we’re all so close to home, so if anybody needs a home-cooked meal or something, we’re there for them.”
That off-the-court chemistry has translated to results, and has the Cougars peaking at the perfect time. The team has won nine of its last 10, and the Cougars’ only slip-up in that span was a 73-70 loss to No. 10 McKendree on Feb. 26. Burchard knows how valuable his team’s chemistry is, and might even have a get-rich-quick scheme hidden up his sleeve.
“If (you) could bottle that up, I think you could sell it for a lot of money,” he said. “Chemistry is one of the most important things to highly successful teams, and it’s the hardest thing to coach or teach. I think people either like each other or they don’t.”
It’s not too hard to see which side of the fence the Cougars fall on. Trae Hall, Columbia College’s leading scorer, says the team’s mantra isn’t too complex.
“Everybody just wants to have fun, and everybody wants to win,” Hall said. “That’s just been the attitude of our team all year.”
The Cougars are in great position to do just that now, but Fields points back to November and December for the reason why they jelled so quickly. Columbia College strung together a nine-game winning streak from mid-November until the team broke for Christmas, with seven of those wins coming on the road.
“That really is what brought us together,” Fields said. “It was just us as a team all together, on the road. That’s what started it all.”
Turner even went as far as to say he’s never been part of a tighter-knit unit.
“It’s a lot like my team my senior year at Rock Bridge,” Turner said. “There’s never a problem with each other, we’re just out here having fun, being together.”