POPLARVILLE, Miss. — For weeks a number of Pearl River Wildcats have been honored by the MACJC, Region XXIII and even the NJCAA. Now it's the man who called all the shots on the record-setting season who's being recognized.
Pearl River coach Chris Oney was named the MACJC Coach of the Year by his peers on Friday, punctuating an unforgettable season for the Wildcats.
"It's probably my least favorite award because our success wasn't just about the head coach. What this really does is validate that I have really good assistant coaches, administration and players and that people recognize just that," Oney said. "I get so excited when all the kids get recognized and the college gets glorified. I think basketball is the ultimate team sport and I try to be the ultimate team leader.
"This is all still surreal. I'm just happy God chose me to be the one to experience all of this."
Added Pearl River Athletics Director Jeff Long: "This is a well-deserved award for Chris Oney after an outstanding year, finishing in the Sweet 16. I'm really proud of our team and his leadership as head coach."
Oney immediately turned the attention to his assistants, Hayden Sowers and Chris Woodall, who were integral in the team's success.
"I don't believe in Coach of the Year, but I think a Staff of the Year award is something I'd give out," he said. "This wouldn't have been close to being possible without Coach Sowers and Coach Woodall. It just goes to show the hard work they put in and their unselfishness all paid off.
"This is more their award than mine."
A GOOD FEELING
Long before the Wildcats appeared in the NJCAA's preseason poll, Oney had a hunch the 2018-19 season would be special.
"I thought we had a really good core of guys coming back (from last year's MACJC Championship team), but the first time we played pickup I knew we were better than the year before," Oney said. "I thought the hunger and determination was there already so I knew we had a chance."
Oney's premonition proved to be correct — virtually from the opening tip of the season. The Wildcats streaked to an 18-0 mark out of the gate, setting a PRCC record as well as being the NJCAA's last undefeated Division I program and finished the regular season with a share of the MACJC South Division title.
Although the Wildcats bowed out in the second round of the MACJC Tournament, Pearl River regrouped and made a second straight run through the Region XXIII Tournament — this time winning the competition for the first time in school history.
The historic victory stamped the Wildcats' ticket to the NJCAA Tournament. Once in Hutchinson, Kansas, the Wildcats took all of about 10 minutes to get warmed up before going on to win the program's NJCAA Tournament debut and advance to the Sweet 16.
A combination of the aforementioned highlights are what Oney said he'll remember most about the 26-4 season.
"I think it's those moments altogether: The moment looking at their faces when the buzzer sounded in Clinton and then watching all of them as we got on the bus and headed to Kansas," Oney said. "That was exciting and cool."
The Wildcats' trophy case has filled up in the weeks after the season ended.
Brandon Rachal (Natchitoches, La.; Natchitoches Central) and Cedric Brim Jr. (Tupelo; Shannon) were named to the All-Region XXIII Tournament and All-Region XXIII teams. Eric Thornton Jr. (Canton; Murrah) joined Rachal and Brim on the All-MACJC South Division squad. Rachal, who was named the MACJC Player of the Week three times and NJCAA Player of the Week once during the regular season, was also named an All-American. Brim was joined by Jonas James III (Jackson; Murrah) on the MACJC All-Star roster.
While award season is largely in the rearview mirror, several Wildcats have one more big day coming up: Signing Day. Rachal and Chris Agbo (Jos, Nigeria) have publicly committed to Tulsa and Indiana State respectively, with Brim set to sign with North Alabama. Several other Wildcats will likely sign on Wednesday as well, joining teammates Kirk Parker (Vicksburg) and Langston Powell (West Monroe, La.), who signed with Southern University and Louisiana-Monroe in the fall.