Eighmy says UTSA is planning a new basketball arena

From time to time, it gets pretty wild at the UTSA Convocation Center.

If you need evidence, check out a video taken at the end of a comeback victory for the Roadrunners over the Old Dominion Monarchs (see above) from the 2018-19 season.

UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy addresses the media Thursday, explaining the school’s move to the American Athletic Conference. — Photo by Jerry Briggs

Alas, the nights of passion in the ‘Bird Cage’ may be numbered.

UTSA president Dr. Taylor Eighmy on Thursday acknowledged the school’s long-range plans to build a new, 10,000-seat competition arena on campus for basketball and volleyball.

“That is a downstream project that we want to develop, using a public-private partnership,” Eighmy said.

The president made his comments after a campus news conference, during which he announced that UTSA would move all of its 17 NCAA Division I athletics programs to the American Athletic Conference.

The school’s move from Conference USA to the AAC is expected to be made after the next two or three years.

The arena is part of a bold facilities push for UTSA, which first fielded intercollegiate athletics teams in 1981-82.

Since then, both men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball have played their games at the Convocation Center on campus.

Over the years, officials in past UTSA administrations have talked about the need for a new arena to replace the aging ‘Bird Cage,’ but nothing of substance has been discussed until now.

The arena report came nestled in a Thursday morning AAC news release that announced UTSA as one of its six new members.

A paragraph in the release started off by saying that the school in August opened the Roadrunner Center of Excellence, a 95,000-square foot facility that houses offices and training areas and is considered as the home for the school’s 24th-ranked football program.

In addition, the AAC release said, UTSA “is embarking on an expansive” capital campaign to develop several other projects, including:

*A new 10,000-seat arena for basketball and volleyball;
*New baseball and softball stadiums;
*A dedicated basketball/volleyball training facility;
*Also, a “standalone” facility for track and field and soccer.

Estimated cost for all of the above could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The administrative wheels are already moving on one of the projects.

Eighmy said UTSA has submitted a request to the City of San Antonio in an effort to gain assistance in funding the basketball/volleyball training facility.

The request is tied to the next city’s next bond project. Eighmy said it would be built adjacent to the RACE building.

“So,’ he added, “we’re already starting on systematic approaches to find resources, or mechanisms, to proceed with adding additional facilities.”

Eighmy declined to estimate what it would cost to build the basketball/volleyball competition arena or when he would like to see the teams move in.

“It’s obviously on our plans to get going,” the president said. “We have a bunch of things we have to tackle. We have to finish Park West (where the track and soccer teams compete).

“We really want to get this practice facility built, for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, but (the arena) is on our horizon. In my lifetime. How about that?”

UTSA men’s basketball coach Steve Henson said he’s excited about the pending move to the new conference and also about the talk of a new arena.

In regard to the challenge of playing in the revamped AAC, and competing against the likes of Memphis, Wichita State and SMU, he admitted that UTSA would be embarking on a league filled with teams that play “high level” basketball.

“The challenge will be great, but the excitement behind it will be great, as well,” he said.

Memphis, under coach Penny Hardaway, has been ranked 12th nationally in the preseason Associated Press poll. Moreover, teams in the AAC play in high-caliber arenas.

Memphis plays in the FedEx Forum. Wichita State plays in the sparkling Charles Koch Arena.

Told after practice that the AAC had sent out information on UTSA’s proposed 10,000-seat arena, Henson smiled and said, “Awesome. I look forward to seeing those plans.”

Henson said he knew about the proposed training facility but acknowledged that he had not heard specifics on UTSA’s arena project.

“I know our people are working like crazy to put us in this position (to change conferences),” he said. “I assumed we had to have some other things in the works to make it happen.

“But, no, I had not heard (about the arena).”

Henson admitted that an arena for his program would supply a boost for a program that has posted winning records in three of the last four seasons but has yet to break through with an NCAA tournament appearance.

An arena, he said, “would do wonders.”

UTSA athletic director Lisa Campos said a combined cost for the basketball/volleyball training center and the baseball and softball stadiums could range from $70 million to $80 million.

Campos added that the arena could cost “a couple of hundred million” dollars to complete.

Clearly, it will be a tall order for UTSA to raise that kind of money.

It could take years to do it, considering the magnitude of the investment and the current economic climate locally coming out of the pandemic.

“We’re going to be strategic about how we could find revenue sources,” she said. “Of course, we’re going to capitalize on the momentum for our philanthropic endeavors, and, winning breeds winning, and folks want to be involved in that.

“Someone had asked me earlier about fundraising, and really, our fan-base, our donor-base has continued to give to UTSA athletics.”

A UTSA master plan published in 2019 pinpoints the location of the proposed arena on the west end of campus. Eighmy said he wants it to be used for “multiple” purposes.

Asked if such a building of that scope could host NCAA tournament games, Eighmy didn’t rule it out.

“Those are the things we have to consider as we develop this public-private partnership,” he said. “We’re advocating all the time why our athletics programs benefit the entire city.”

Eighmy said he wants to invest in programs led by the likes of Henson, Karen Aston (women’s basketball) and Laura Neugebauer-Groff (volleyball) who work in the Convocation Center on a daily basis.

“Our Convocation Center is not a suitable facility for either practice or intercollegiate competition,” Eighmy said. “I mean, it served its purpose in its day, but we need to move on.”

Cedrick Alley talks of high hopes and dreams as a UTSA senior

Cedrick Alley Jr., Jacob Germany. UAB beat UTSA 64-57 on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Conference USA action at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA forward Cedrick Alley Jr. (left) teams with center Jacob Germany to hound a UAB shooter last year. Alley, once regarded as the top player in Texas Class 6A at Klein Forest High School, is acknowledged as the defensive leader for the Roadrunners. – Photo by Joe Alexander

After experiencing the sweetness of team success in college basketball at the University of Houston, Cedrick Alley Jr. never quite felt completely fulfilled on an individual level.

He hopes to taste both sensations this season as a senior with the UTSA Roadrunners.

In a candid interview, Alley, a former “Mr. Basketball” in Texas at Klein Forest High School, spelled out his hoop dreams in detail recently.

He laid them out there for all to analyze, as fans are known to do.

Alley wants to play in the NCAA tournament again, as he did a few years ago with the Cougars. Moreover, in his second year with the Roadrunners, he also hopes to make a run at Defensive Player of the Year honors in Conference USA.

All of it, he said, makes up a grand plan to help re-establish UTSA basketball tradition. Alley wants that, more than anything, as he prepares for his last ride as a college player.

“It is crazy to think about that, seeing (former teammates) go off and be able to hold up their picture (on Senior Day), and have everyone scream for them,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s going to be a great feeling (for me).

“But I’m not so much focused on that as I am on … winning the Conference USA Tournament, and getting us where we want to go — to the NCAA Tournament. UTSA basketball. I feel like we can get there.”

UTSA men's basketball coach Steve Henson at the first practice for the 2021-22 season at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson says he thinks Cedric Alley, Jr., is playing with a renewed passion for the game – Photo by Joe Alexander

What makes him so confident?

“Our coaches have been real, real serious about defense this year,” Alley said. “We’ve hardly even worked on offense. So I feel one of our main goals this year is to be one of the best defensive teams in this league.

“I feel like our defense is going to take us as far as we want to go. We lock in on defense, and we can be in any game we play.”

At Houston, Alley redshirted his first year out of Klein Forest and then played 60 games over two years through 2019-20 with the nationally-ranked Cougars. At that juncture, he transferred, seeking a fresh start at UTSA.

With the Roadrunners last season, he battled through a series of minor injuries to average a modest 6.3 points, but he came on strong down the stretch as the team went 8-2 in the last 10 games of the C-USA regular season.

This year? Alley, at 6-6, 230 pounds, is sort of like the team’s defensive coordinator in the locker room. He takes the leadership role seriously, and he thinks that if he does his job, the team will win.

Also, his individual success will follow.

“I want to average 10 rebounds,” he said. “Points, it don’t matter to me. Everyone on this team can score. I want to average 10 rebounds and be a defensive player. I want to be the Defensive Player (of the Year) in Conference USA.

“That’s my expectation, and to hold the team accountable, if we’re not doing the job our coaches want us to.”

With a little more than three weeks remaining before the start of the new season, UTSA coach Steve Henson said he is more than happy with Alley’s work ethic and mindset.

“I don’t know if he alluded to it or not, but we kind of feel like he’s got a little of his passion back,” Henson said. “Sometimes when you go from being a superstar — you know, he was an elite high school player — it wasn’t easy (for him) at Houston.

“His role was diminished a little bit, and he didn’t have as much impact on the results … as he wanted to have.”

“He didn’t get off to a great start (for us) last year. Second half, he was pretty good. But he’s got a different approach right now. His offseason was much better this year. He’s much better conditioned.”

Last season, his conditioning failed him at times because of circumstances beyond his control.

Physical setbacks kept him from attaining peak conditioning at the outset of the season, Henson said, and then a groin injury in January in the C-USA opener at Rice added to his problems.

Additionally, with C-USA games scheduled for back-to-back days because of Covid-19 mitigation, Alley was hamstrung. He’d play one day but couldn’t get moving on the second day.

It wasn’t until Jan. 23 that he played as many as 19 minutes on Day Two of a back-to-back.

By the time Alley started feeling it physically, the monster snowstorm hit and the power went out in his apartment, forcing him to relocate to a teammate’s on-campus dwelling to stay warm.

“Crazy,” he said, thinking back to last season. “But, we’re here now, and we’re thinking about having a big year. A big year.”

From the outside, Alley’s talk of a title run for the Roadrunners is likely to be met with skepticism.

Ten seasons have passed since the Roadrunners last made it to an NCAA tournament. On top of that, as a C-USA member for the past eight seasons, they haven’t even made it past the tournament quarterfinals.

Alley, however, is confident.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA wanted to emphasize defense on Friday in a 91-62 victory over Sul Ross State at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Cedrick Alley, Jr. says he wants to be the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and to lead the Roadrunners to the NCAA tournament. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Even without departed standouts Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, he believes the Roadrunners’ players are up to the task. Taller at most positions. With longer arms to shut down passing lanes. And with enough offensive firepower to win.

Some of the offense may come from some of the youngest players, he said.

“Josh (Farmer), he’s like 6 (feet) 9 and he plays hard. Goes to the boards hard. He can go get a bucket any time. He’s looking very good on the court, very comfortable.

“Then we got Lamin (Sabally) from Germany. He’s very long. Defensive stopper. He steps up at big moments. And then we got AZ (Azavier Johnson) from Las Vegas. A big body.

“We’re looking for them to come in and give us everything they got.”

Leading the way is Alley, a guy with a charismatic personality who doesn’t mind taking on the challenge of elevating the program from good, to better than good — all the way back to the Big Dance.

“I want to get UTSA on the map, (to let people know) that we’re here for basketball, and that we can compete at the highest level,” he said.

Sabally’s return to practice boosts Roadrunners

Lamin Sabally is a 6-foot-7 freshman guard who comes to the UTSA men's basketball team from Germany. - photo by Joe Alexander

Lamin Sabally is a 6-foot-7 freshman guard/forward from Germany. – photo by Joe Alexander

Freshman forward Lamin Sabally has returned to drills with the UTSA Roadrunners after sitting out four or five practices with a concussion early in the preseason camp.

UTSA coach Steve Henson said Tuesday that Sabally has been working his way back into form since re-joining the team on the floor last Saturday.

“He’s been fine (physically),” Henson said. “He didn’t lose much in that short of time. No effects of that whatsoever. He just jumped right back into it.”

UTSA has been in practices for nearly two weeks in preparation for a Nov. 9 season opener against Trinity.

Sabally, at 6-7 and 195 pounds, plays a fluid style that should complement the Roadrunners’ other rotation pieces in the frontcourt.

“We’ve never had a roster with that many long forwards, guys that could play multiple positions, (with) that much length, and pretty skilled at that position as well,” the coach said.

Henson said he has liked the looks of his team’s defense to this point but acknowledges that “we’re searching a little bit right now” in terms of identifying an offensive style.

“We’ve got different guys with the ability to create, and move the ball,” he said. “We can trust virtually everybody to make plays, which is a good sign.”

Henson said the Roadrunners are hopeful of being multi-dimensional on offense, with several scoring threats.

“Everybody can handle it well enough on the perimeter that we can play with five guys on the perimeter quite a bit,” the coach said. “If we can get four guys around (center) Jacob (Germany), that looks pretty good, as well.

“Still searching for a little more attack, seeking fouls, driving it down into the paint. We’re going to continue to look for that.

“There are times in practice when we make a lot of threes, we’re shooting off the pass, and shooting it pretty well,” he said. “It’s kind of across the board. A guy will make one. Another guy will make one.

“It’s not like one or two guys are carrying the load in that regard.”

Notable

Sabally, from Berlin, in Germany, is from a basketball family. Satou Sabally, his sister, has played two seasons in the WNBA with the Dallas Wings. She was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft out of Oregon. Nyara Sabally, another sister, is a junior at Oregon.

Lamin Sabally played internationally for the ALBA Berlin U18 team in 2018-19 in the Munich League before coming to the United States. He also played for the club team Tusli Lichterfeld in Berlin. Sabally moved from Germany in 2019 to play prep basketball in Arizona.

UTSA forward Aleu Aleu, a 6-8 junior transfer, has sat out most of the team’s camp with an unspecified injury. He was out again Tuesday after making it through about half of Monday’s workout …

Henson said walk-on point guard Christian Tucker, from Chandler, Ariz., has played well. “He’s been terrific,” Henson said. “He’s been really, really good.”

Henson applauds UTSA’s competitive edge, chemistry

Lachlan Bofinger. UTSA beat Lamar 88-66 on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Lachlan Bofinger has emerged at the start of camp as one of the most improved of the returning players for the UTSA Roadrunners. — Photo by Joe Alexander

After his seventh practice of the preseason, UTSA coach Steve Henson said Thursday that he likes the progress his team has made thus far.

“I’m very encouraged,” Henson said. “It’s a real competitive group. I mean, they get after it. They want to keep score on just about everything we do.

“We’ve got a good ability to compete and talk and fight each other, and then as soon as it’s over, they move past it.

“They don’t carry any grudges when things get a little rough. I think that’s a good sign for us.”

The Roadrunners are about a quarter of the way through their preseason. By rule, Division I programs get 30 practices.

Josh Farmer, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward from Houston Sharpstown, at the first day of UTSA men's basketball practice. - photo by Joe Alexander

Josh Farmer is a promising 6-9 freshman forward from Houston. – Photo by Joe Alexander

On Thursday afternoon, freshman forward Josh Farmer had a solid day, showing off an ability to hit jumpers, as well as a knack for finishing drives with soft banks off the glass.

Henson said he’s seen “quite a few” pleasant surprises.

“All of them have been good,” he said. “I’ve been really impressed with the freshmen. Those guys are doing a great job.”

The coach also mentioned transfers Dhieu Deing (a junior) and Darius McNeill (a senior) for playing up to high expectations, with 6-6 sophomore Lachlan Bofinger emerging as one of the most improved players among the returners.

“It is early, but he is playing with so much confidence,” Henson said. “He just makes a lot of good plays. Doesn’t matter how we pick the teams. His team has a chance to win most of the time.”

After Farmer utilized his 6-foot-9 size and shooting touch to score a few baskets, Bofinger blocked his shot, saved it from going out of bounds and flung it downcourt to start a fast break.

The sequence ended with a resounding two-handed stuff by senior forward Cedrick Alley, Jr.

“He’s a pretty versatile guy,” Henson said of Bofinger, a native of Australia who averaged 9.9 minutes in 17 games last year as a freshman. “It looks like he’s taken a big step here. He’s relentless (in every practice). Every drill, every rep.”

The Roadrunners have suffered some adversity in the early going, the most notable being senior forward Adrian Rodriguez, who has elected not to play because of medical reasons.

Rodriguez has been slowed since 2017, his freshman year, by a knee injury.

In addition, freshman Lamin Sabally and junior transfer Aleu Aleu have also been held out of most of the camp thus far.

Aleu, a 6-foot-8 transfer from Temple JC, hasn’t had a full practice yet but he does attend and is gradually increasing his work load.

Sabally worked out on media day last Wednesday, on the first day, and he showed off potential as a wing defender.

But the 6-7 forward, slowed by a concussion, hasn’t practiced much this week though he could be cleared for more work by Saturday.

Frontcourt minutes available

Most of the talk as camp opened centered on how the team would make up for the loss of guards Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace, the Nos. 1-2 scorers in school history, who are both pursuing pro careers.

But the team also has some questions to answer about the frontcourt, as well.

Rodriguez played some at backup center and power forward last season. Now that he has decided not to play, that is one void the team must figure out how to fill.

Also to be determined is a replacement for Eric Parrish, a starting small forward last season who elected last spring to leave the team.

Deing, a 6-foot-5 transfer, apparently is the guy to step in for Parrish.

He is a player of African descent who was born in Louisiana and played in high school in North Carolina. He attended Dodge City (Kan.) JC last year and, last summer, suited up for South Sudan’s national team in the FIBA AfroBasket tournament.

Deing shoots well from the perimeter and can create on the dribble.

Right now, he appears to be the leading contender to step into a starting lineup that would also include big men Jacob Germany at center, Alley at power forward, McNeill at point guard and Jordan Ivy-Curry at shooting guard.

Bofinger, Farmer, Aleu and Sabally are all players who could play both forward positions.

While Bofinger is a hard-driving type who thrives on creating havoc on the defensive end, Farmer is a burgeoning offensive talent.

Aleu was born in Kenya, in Africa, and Sabally in Germany.

Both have also played in high school in the United States, Aleu in high school in Austin and at Temple JC, and Sabally in prep school in Arizona.

Returning senior Phoenix Ford is expected to play a prominent role at the power forward position.

‘Inspirational’ Rodriguez calls it a career at UTSA

Adrian Rodriguez. UTSA beat Southwestern Adventist from Keene, Texas, 123-43 in a non-conference game on Thursday, March 4, 2021, at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Adrian Rodriguez on Wednesday was lauded by his coach for bringing a positive energy to the program. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Described by his coach as an “inspirational” player who always led by example, UTSA forward Adrian Rodriguez on Wednesday announced he has elected to retire from basketball for medical reasons.

“Today is a hard day as I’m announcing that I am completing my career as a Roadrunner due to medical reasons,” said Rodriguez, a fifth-year senior, in a statement released through the athletic department.

Rodriguez, from Tulsa, Okla., came to UTSA and played in 71 games with seven starts, scoring 157 points, grabbing 184 rebounds and blocking 17 shots. He also had 10 steals.

The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Rodriguez has battled injuries throughout his college career.

He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener of his true freshman season on Nov. 12, 2017, a game in which he produced 10 points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes.

Rodriguez returned for the 2018-19 season, playing in 29 of UTSA’s 32 games.

In his third season in 2019-20, he played in 23 games with three starts. Last season, he was in 18 of 26 games with four starts in the post.

Coach Steve Henson lauded Rodriguez for bringing a positive spirit to the Roadrunners.

“His work ethic, positive attitude and passion for his school and teammates has been inspirational,” Henson said in a statement.

“After suffering an injury in his first collegiate game, Adrian worked daily at rehab in an effort to be the best teammate he can be,” the coach said, “and only through his hard work, he was able to come back and become a key part of our roster for the last three years.”

Hopes are high as UTSA unveils revamped roster in first practice

Darius McNeill is one of the new players on the UTSA men's basketball roster. He is a 6-foot-3 senior transfer guard. - photo by Joe Alexander

High-energy guard Darius McNeill told reporters that he was relieved to receive clearance from the NCAA last week to play this season. He transferred into UTSA in the offseason after two years at Cal and one at SMU. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The UTSA Roadrunners hit the practice floor on Wednesday afternoon, opening preseason workouts confident that they can build on a winning tradition established by departed scoring stars Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.

With Jackson and Wallace, the Roadrunners produced a 65-60 record in four seasons, including 38-32 in Conference USA. The team forged winning conference records in three of four years with the duo, who left UTSA as the Nos. 1 and 2 scorers in school history.

UTSA men's basketball coach Steve Henson at the first practice for the 2021-22 season at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson starts his sixth season at UTSA hoping to find a winning formula with a revamped roster. – photo by Joe Alexander

Prior to their arrival, UTSA basketball was down, riding a dismal stretch of five straight years with losing records, both overall and in conference. So, while some of their own fans may worry about how the team can replace the two, the new group is hardly fazed by the challenge.

UTSA sophomore Jordan Ivy-Curry says he thinks he and his teammates will be fine. Asked by a reporter what life will be like without Jackson and Wallace, Ivy-Curry didn’t hesitate with his response. “It’s going to be better,” he said.

“We’re going to be better,” said Ivy-Curry, who is projected as the team’s starter at shooting guard. “Even without Keaton and Jhivvan, you know, they were great scorers, but I feel like we have some great guys that came in. They can do the same.”

Based on how the team competed in a three-hour workout at the Convocation Center, it’s obvious that the Roadrunners are different, perhaps better defensively, with a fleet of lengthy, athletic forwards and guards.

It remains to be seen how they will fare, though, without the dominant backcourt scoring prowess that Jackson and Wallace supplied.

“Obviously it’s a different feel out there,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “A lot of new energy. A lot of new faces. A lot of hungry guys. A lot of guys that are going to be fighting for roles. They think they’re fighting for shots. They need to be fighting for roles.

“But I think you can sense the excitement, the newness, the freshness.”

Also, the quickness.

With a potential starting wing group that consists of Ivy-Curry, along with newcomers Darius McNeill and Dhieu Deing, both of them transfers, the Roadrunners showed in the first workout how they can get up and down the court in a hurry.

In addition, UTSA also exhibited a physical presence in the paint with 6-11 Jacob Germany and 6-6, 230-pound power forward Cedrick Alley Jr., both of them holdovers from last year’s team that finished 15-11 overall and 9-7 in the C-USA.

Scrimmage highlights that stood out on the first day included a fast break led by McNeill, who jetted down the court, passing a few defenders along the way.

When he reached the paint, the former two-year starter at Cal in the Pac-12 stopped and two-handed a bullet pass to the corner.

When the ensuing jump shot misfired, Deing swept in from the wing to tip it in.

Deing may have had the most and memorable moments of any of the newcomers on opening day. When he wasn’t spotting up to hit threes, he showed off deft ball-handling and passing skills.

On one play, he drove baseline, attracted a defender and dumped off a pass to Lachlan Bofinger for a layup.

Even with the offensive flair on display, players cheered loudest for good defensive plays, an emphasis from the start of team building during summer workouts.

A confident group is coming together with the season opener scheduled for Nov. 9 at home against Trinity.

“Oh, we going to be better,” Ivy-Curry said. “Just watch.”

Finding a home

McNeill said it felt good to get out on the floor with his new teammates. It felt especially good because, only last Friday, UTSA announced that he had been cleared by the NCAA to play immediately without having to sit out a year.

After two years at Cal, McNeill moved to Dallas in 2019 to attend SMU, hoping to be closer to his Houston home. Also, hoping to play right away. It didn’t happen. Denied by the NCAA, he sat out all of 2019-20 before finally getting a shot with the Mustangs last season.

Feeling restless last spring, McNeill elected to transfer again, and UTSA answered the call.

“When I first came in, it was like, up and down,” he said. “I was sad, because I didn’t want to go through the same thing I did at SMU. Nobody understands, you practice every day and you’re working for something and they tell you, ‘No.’

“It was like a hurt feeling. Now I get to play. My family gets to come see me play and I get to help the team win.”

Maturing as a player

Feeling good physically, 6-foot-11 center Jacob Germany also has a sense of ease that comes from being a veteran college player. A few years ago, he was a freshman, uncertain about his ability to play the college game at a high level.

Now, he’s a junior, feeling settled and more sure of himself.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “Big mindset change. Confidence, you know, is a lot higher. Freshmen come in and most of ’em are going to be scared and just trying to fit in. I enjoy it more now. I feel more comfortable. It’s really nice, honestly.”

Stormy weather for UTSA hoops? Not likely

UTSA center Jacob Germany throws down a dunk with 2:18 left to give UTSA a 69-65 lead in a 77-69 victory over North Texas on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021 at the Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

UTSA center Jacob Germany is expected to emerge as one of the focal points of an offense that may take some time to find an identity. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Sitting on the living room couch this morning, it’s still dark outside, and I hear rolling thunder and cracks of lightning. Also, some wind gusts and much-needed rain.

With a cup of coffee in reach, I started thinking. This nice little break from our weeks-long streak of late summer sunshine has got to have some alternate meaning, right?

Jordan Ivy-Curry. UTSA beat Southern Miss 70-64 in Conference USA action at the Convocation Center on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. - photo by Joe Alexander

Jordan Ivy-Curry, who averaged 7.2 points last season, likely will take on more of a scoring load this year as a sophomore. — Photo by Joe Alexander

How about a couple of possible narratives related to the start of UTSA men’s basketball practice, which gets underway later this afternoon at the Convocation Center?

Is nature’s noisy wake-up call a portent of what we can expect this season from, say, senior and first-year point guard Darius McNeill, throwing lobs for resounding dunks to junior center Jacob Germany?

Or, perhaps, from 230-pound Cedric Alley Jr., rumbling into the paint for rebounds in traffic?

Last season, we saw glimpses of potential from guard Jordan Ivy-Curry, who came on late to stoke optimism about the emergence of another high-scoring UTSA backcourt player.

Surely, “Juice,” now a sophomore, will supply some lightning of his own in coming months.

Then again, you have to wonder also about the flip side of our weather-related metaphor, because UTSA basketball historically tends to take you on the emotional roller coaster.

Could the morning cloud-burst actually be a sign of stormy weather to come for coach Steve Henson’s program?

After all, two of the best players — if not the two best players — in school history are no longer on the team.

Cedrick Alley Jr. UTSA beat UTEP 86-79 in a Conference USA game on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Cedrick Alley Jr., slowed by injuries last season, has impressed coaches during preseason conditioning. — Photo by Joe Alexander

Both Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace combined to score more than 4,500 points between them over the past four years before undertaking a journey that both hope leads to careers in professional basketball.

So, replacing those two will not be easy.

Henson, though, doesn’t sound like a guy who is concerned about a drop off from the past four seasons.

During a month of conditioning with the new group, he generally liked what he saw. Fierce competition, mainly.

With several newcomers, individual roles were being defined on a daily basis, so the level of intensity was high.

At the same time, Henson does have questions about the team’s identity and what it might look like come next March.

“It always evolves,” Henson said last week. “Typically, you go in and you have an idea what it’s going to look like. The more new guys you have, the more questions it would be. The commitment to the defensive end seems to be pretty strong.

“That gives us the best chance to win games.

“Offensively, there may be more questions. How are we really going to find our way offensively? We’ve got guys who can score. Juice has already proven that. Jacob’s already proven that. (Newcomer) Dhieu (Deing) has already scored at a high level (in junior college).

“So, I’m not worried about it. I just don’t know exactly what our offensive identity will end up looking like.”

‘Defensive intensity’ evident in early UTSA drills

Steve Henson. UTSA beat UTEP 86-70 on Saturday at the UTSA Convocation Center. - photo by Joe Alexander

Coach Steve Henson is preparing to open his sixth season as men’s basketball coach at UTSA. – Photo by Joe Alexander

For fans of the UTSA Roadrunners, it may take awhile to adjust, in terms of not seeing 2,000-point scorers Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace on the floor this fall.

It will be strange. But as far as sixth-year coach Steve Henson is concerned, he more or less has already turned the page mentally.

Henson said Friday that he very much likes the energy of his newest group of Roadrunners.

“You walk in right away and you notice the competitiveness,” he said. “The group’s really getting after it … What really jumps out is the defensive intensity (and) the length.”

Last season, as Jackson and Wallace played their fourth and final seasons together, UTSA finished 15-11 overall and 9-7 in Conference USA.

After Jackson hurt his shoulder in the opener of the C-USA tournament, the Roadrunners were eliminated by Western Kentucky in the quarterfinals.

Since then, Henson and his staff have been busy making plans for the new group of players and the new season. Conditioning drills have been ongoing since the start of the fall semester.

“We’ve got more 6-6, 6-7 guys than we’ve ever had before,” Henson said. “So the length, in the passing lanes — some of those guys are really getting after it, getting pretty good ball pressure. (We’re) just super competitive in the defensive segments.”

UTSA had a banner day in the offseason on April 6. On that day, the Roadrunners announced the signing of guard Darius McNeill and forward Josh Farmer.

Farmer is a 6-9 freshman from Houston Sharpstown, the 10th-rated player in the state. McNeill is a 6-3 senior transfer who has played two seasons at the University of California in the Pac-12 and one at SMU in the American Athletic Conference.

“With Darius, we were thrilled when we were able to get him to transfer over,” Henson said. “Like we said (in our news release), he had two really good years out at Cal. He transferred back closer to home, went to SMU. Sat out a year and then played one year at SMU. So, he’s had a lot of success.”

UTSA on Friday learned that the NCAA had granted McNeill a waiver, allowing him to play immediately. Henson said he wants McNeill to set the tone for the Roadrunners defensively.

“If you’re looking for someone to compare him to physically, Keaton (Wallace) would be a good one,” the coach said. “Really, really strong. Similar size. Lefty. But really, really can get after the ball.

“He guards the ball, heats it up. Applies pressure. Unbelievably quick on the turf, in the stuff you can measure. On the court, it’s just obvious.

“We’re thrilled with what he can do setting the tone for our defense. Always in the gym. Absolutely living in the gym right now. Made a lot of threes at Cal. It’s proven he can do that. We haven’t done much with any pace at this point.

“But I think he’ll be pretty good in the open court, as well.”

Henson acknowledged that it was a “big deal” for the Roadrunners to land a player of his stature.

“He’s got a lot of experience and he’s extremely tough,” Henson said. “That was a really, really good get for us.”

Tour of a lifetime: George Ligon’s team made its mark

By Jerry Briggs
An in-depth report, for The JB Replay

About 35 years have passed since a World War II-era baseball ambassador named George Ligon, Jr., died and was laid to rest in Southern California. A headstone at the man’s Brawley, Calif., gravesite marks his service to the nation as a U.S. Army veteran of the war’s Pacific theater.

George Ligon, Jr., started a touring baseball team out of Hondo in the 1930s. It played in the United States, Canada and Mexico for 15 years through the early 1950s. Ligon kept the team going even after he returned from military service in World War II. Photo copy, from the archives of the Brawley (Calif.) News.

Another memorial dedicated to him also can be found in South Texas, about 40 miles west of San Antonio, in an out-of-the-way, rural cemetery where visitors can hear the wind “rattle” the seed packs in the thick brush.

In the small town of Hondo, Ligon served honorably in the world of sports. He was the founder and proprietor of “Ligon’s Baseball Club,” a black touring squad that traveled by bus to play games in 20 U.S. states and in three countries over a 15-year period through the early 1950s.

Appropriately, a marker at the Cottonwood Cemetery in rural Medina County is adorned with the team’s red, white and blue logo. A white ball, inside a red star, on a blue background. Clearly, the man loved his team, and he also loved his country, despite all of its flaws in the Jim Crow era.

“This is really the story of America,” said Laurence Ligon, a Maryland resident and the son of the man who ran the ball club. “It’s really our story. It’s not just one (racial) group. It doesn’t belong in one (category). It’s really everybody’s story.

“Because, for my father, one of the things that I can say, for all the slings and arrows that got thrown at him, he didn’t have (the capacity) to hate people. Or attack people. Or be angry with people.”

It’s a timeless lesson that is relevant today, even though George Ligon, Jr., was born in Texas in 1910 at a distinct disadvantage in society.

Regardless, the son of an Austin-area farmer soon started to make a name for himself, first as a baseball pitcher in Uvalde and then as a Hondo-based player/businessman whose enterprise gave others an opportunity to showcase their skills.

“At first,” George Ligon, Jr., said in a 1982 newspaper interview, “my brother (Rufus) and I played for a white fellow who owned a black team, and we played against white teams quite often.”

But, not always, because inter-racial games were controversial at the time. He told reporter Peter Odens of the Brawley (Calif.) News that the black teams in the area just couldn’t make it in a league of their own.

Owners of the white teams owned the ballparks, Ligon told Odens, and those owners charged the black teams 45 percent of “the total take” to play on their fields.

“It was a good league while it lasted,” Ligon told the newspaper. “Anyway, I started my own team in about 1937 and made it a traveling team. Had it for 15 years.”

Laurence Ligon said in a telephone interview that his father managed the team and drove the bus on trips that started in Hondo, led into the Midwest and then veered into the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

Later, the All-Stars traveled down the West Coast – and into Mexico.

“My dad told me some of the craziest stories,” Laurence Ligon said in a telephone interview. “Like, the brakes on the bus fell out. (Then) they … over-heated. And they ran the bus into a hay bale. And the farmer came out, and they had to help him re-bale the hay.

”I mean, all kinds of stuff like that. They were just (out there) running around on the plains.”

Because of all the time that has elapsed since this epic baseball venture began, a lack of first-hand information keeps anyone from knowing exactly how the team got its start.

For instance, what was the nature of the bus and the travel? When did Ligon buy the bus? It’s possible he purchased it in the 1930s because, during the Great Depression, many commercial bus companies were going out of business in the economic downturn.

Which leads to the possibility that Ligon could have negotiated a bargain buy at that time. If he didn’t, then it’s also plausible that maybe he just had to wait until after he returned from fighting in the Pacific theater of the war.

Maybe he finally made enough money in the Army to save up for the purchase. If that’s the case, then it was a high price to pay, because Laurence Ligon said he believes his father was wounded while fighting in Buna, on the island of New Guinea.

A team picture of Ligon’s Baseball Club. Photo, courtesy Laurence Ligon

The battle of Buna-Gola, according to historians, was a bloody, three-month jungle fight that started in November of 1942 and ended with an Allied forces victory in January of 1943. Many of the soldiers who survived came home with malaria.

“I don’t know if he volunteered or if he was drafted (into the Army),” Ligon said. “But he went to train at Fort Huachuca (Arizona). Then he went and fought against the Japanese and was wounded, somewhere in the islands around Guadalcanal. I think it was on Buna.

“So, he was discharged, came back, and, from like 1947 to ‘50 or ‘51, they were still traveling (with the baseball team).”

Apparently, Ligon wasn’t the only member of the All-Stars with a hard-scrabble background. A search of archives in the Hondo Anvil-Herald turned up information pointing to how Ligon assembled his team in the late 1940s with prospects who had known each other for years.

Several apparently first attended the town’s segregated school for blacks. When the Anvil-Herald in 1998 ran a story on a Ligon family reunion, it also published what was labeled as a 1939-40 class picture of the Hondo Colored School.

Included in the picture were students identified as Cleveland “Babe” Grant, Sterling Jasper Fuller and Roy “Banky” White. In a separate issue of the newspaper published to commemorate local World War II veterans, Fuller’s name was on the list of those who served.

The names of Grant, Fuller and White, in turn, were listed on baseball websites that chronicled the Ligon All-Stars’ games in Canada in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Meaning that, the players on those long bus rides out of Hondo, to Canada, and back again all shared a unique bond.

Some of them likely were neighbors as kids. Maybe a few of them walked to grade school together. At least one (Fuller) served in the military and all of them, to a man, loved to play the game – no matter what. They’d travel for hours on end knowing that, in some places in America, they just weren’t welcome.

“You have to know where they don’t want you (to play), and then … don’t play there,” recalled George Ligon, Jr., in the 1982 edition of the Brawley News.

Laurence Ligon, 60, a California native who lives in Maryland and works in computers, said he didn’t know much about the All Stars until a reporter showed up at the family’s home to interview his father in the early 1980s.

“I had heard some of those stories, but (with) the guy asking some pretty good questions, they sat there and talked for a good five hours,“ Ligon said. “And I started hearing a lot more about it.”

On and on went the conversation.

“I was blown away,” Laurence Ligon said, recalling the day his father laid it all out for the visiting reporter. “I just didn’t know that my dad had done all that.”

Ligon said he sometimes jokes about his “gypsy” heritage with friends and family.

“I tell guys, ‘That’s where I get this gypsy blood of mine,’ “ he said. “I love getting in the car and traveling. My dad drove the bus. He managed the team. He drove that bus from Hondo all the way up to Saskatchewan.

“Then they’d come over and play in California and go down into Mexico and play, and then head back to Hondo.”

In 1947, Jackie Robinson made headlines around the nation and changed the game when he broke the color barrier in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Around the same time, the Ligon All-Stars were putting in almost 200,000 miles on their bus over one four-year stretch.

Ligon’s Baseball Club would hit the road in a bus for trips that would carry them thousands of miles. Photo, courtesy Laurence Ligon

All the while, playing in front of some white fans who perhaps had never seen a black athlete on a baseball diamond. Cutting up. Having fun. Sometimes playing with a catcher who would tease the crowd by sitting behind home plate in a rocking chair.

“I have heard about that one, yes,” Laurence Ligon said with a laugh.

One day, Ligon said he hopes to return to Hondo to have some work done on the exterior of the old cemetery. He said he wants to preserve the peaceful setting, in a rural area a few miles north of Interstate 90, with head stones dating back to the Civil War.

“It’s a really nice (place),” he said. “I don’t know what (kind of) plants they have (on the grounds, but) I remember they’re like a bush, and at the very top (of the plant) it’s kind of heavy. They’ve got like a seed pack on the top, and when the wind blows, these seed packs kind of rattle.

“It just makes this really calming sort of noise. I go out there and I just want to sit down and just kind of take it all in. It’s really beautiful.”

Missions’ gesture of respect humbles Biz Mackey’s family

Jerseys worn by the San Antonio Missions on Saturday harkened back to the early 20th century, when baseball was segregated and Biz Mackey played minor league ball for the San Antonio Black Aces. Mackey went on to become a big-time star player in Indianapolis and Philadelphia, and as a player-manager in Newark, in the Negro Leagues. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The oldest professional sport in San Antonio, the one with perhaps the deepest roots in the culture of the city, hit a home run on Saturday night in tying the past to the present.

On a day of celebration for the recently-declared national holiday of Juneteenth, the Missions baseball club commemorated the Negro Leagues and honored a black ball player with local ties whose magnificent career went all but unnoticed for decades.

Houston resident Ray Mackey III talks about the career of his great uncle, Biz Mackey, who was inducted in 2006 into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. – Photo by Joe Alexander

The Missions brought the family of the late James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey to Wolff Stadium so that they, and others connected to black baseball in the Alamo City, could get together and enjoy a ball game and a fireworks display.

It was a good feeling for Ray Mackey III and his two sons.

“This is really pretty extraordinary for me,” said Mackey III, the Hall of Fame catcher’s great nephew. “One of the things I share with my sons is that when you strive for excellence, it may not be rewarded right away. In Biz’s case, even during his lifetime.

“But excellence has a way of ultimately prevailing and sort of rising to the top. Like cream, it will rise to the top.”

Mackey was born in 1897 in Eagle Pass and grew up hoeing rows of cotton on a farm near Luling.

After playing a half-dozen years in semi-pro and minor-league circuits in Texas, including at least two with the San Antonio Black Aces, he joined the Indianapolis ABCs in 1920 in what was considered the first official season of the Negro Leagues.

His career spanned the so-called Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and World War II before it ended in 1947. Known for his defensive prowess and strong arm as a catcher, Mackey also played shortstop and pitched. He hit .327 for his career, according to a statistics page in “Biz Mackey, a Giant Behind the Plate,” by author Rich Westcott.

In nine of those years, Mackey also managed, leading the Newark Eagles to a 1946 Colored World Series championship against the Kansas City Monarchs.

Mackey III, a Houston-based church pastor, attended ceremonies in Cooperstown in 2006 when his great uncle was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But coming back to San Antonio felt different.

“This means so much because this is where my family’s roots are,” he said. “You know, we’re from the Luling area. In fact, we just left Luling (where we were) eating barbeque near Prairie Lea, Lockhart, all around that area. So, that’s home to us.

“A lot of Mackeys moved to San Antonio, sort of migrated from Luling, for job opportunities and things.

“More importantly, the San Antonio Black Aces were (where he got) his start. So this is the foundation. This is where everything began for him. So, to look back in retrospect is just really meaningful. It’s really exciting. For him to have this honor, it’s just, it’s really heartfelt.”

The celebration had been in the planning stages for nearly a year and a half.

Last spring, Missions assistant general manager Bill Gerlt took on the project, trying to organize a day to honor the Negro Leagues’ centennial (1920-2020) in a meaningful way for South Texas.

Originally, he wanted to hold the event on June 20, 2020, but the minor league season was canceled because of the pandemic. Still, Gerlt persisted, arranging for the jerseys to be made with a San Antonio Black Aces logo on the front and a Negro Leagues centennial logo on one sleeve.

The logo, incidentally, is an image of Biz Mackey.

Gerlt also invited several former ball players, including Cliff Johnson, formerly of the Houston Astros, and members of the South Texas Negro Leagues ex-players association.

Missions’ shortstop CJ Abrams (left) and second baseman Eguy Rosario confer during Saturday night’s game against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The Missions rallied with three runs in the seventh for a 6-5 victory. – Photo by Joe Alexander

Jerseys were to be auctioned off with proceeds going to the Texas Kidney Foundation.

“We were going to do this last year to celebrate the 100th anniversary but had to cancel it because of the Covid thing,” Gerlt said. “But, anyway, the timing worked out with Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. So, we’ve had a year and half of planning for this one event.”

Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said in an interview last year that Mackey’s likeness was chosen for the centennial logo because of his reputation as a dignified leader in the game.

“Biz is a very important player in regard to Negro League history,” Kendrick said. “He’s arguably the greatest defensive catcher of all time. If … Roy Campanella (were) still alive, he’d tell you that Biz Mackey is the greatest defensive catcher that he had ever seen.

“And, again, as we were trying to convey what we wanted this centennial to reflect, and how important the Negro Leagues were, I think the entire dignified persona (was) something that we wanted.”