The day before his team’s first matchup of the season against a Division I opponent, Toccoa Falls men’s basketball coach Kevin Hall racked his brain to try to come up with an appropriate pregame pep talk.
What do you say to motivate a team so overmatched that losing by 40 would qualify as an accomplishment?
“When I spoke to them, I told them, ‘We understand a win is probably not realistic, but that doesn’t take away our ability to compete hard and bust our butts from start to finish,'” Hall said. “Unfortunately, it’s like Mike Tyson said. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Toccoa Falls lost 135-34 at Appalachian State on Nov. 11 in what is only the sixth game decided by more than 100 points in Division I men’s basketball history. The Eagles trailed by 30 midway through the first half and by 47 at halftime, the lead ballooning thereafter even though Appalachian State didn’t play any starter more than 19 minutes and emptied its bench late in the game.
In two subsequent matchups against small-conference Division I opponents so far this season, Toccoa Falls fared only slightly better, getting clobbered by 67 at Mercer on Nov. 12 and by 71 at Charleston Southern on Monday afternoon. The Eagles have now lost by an average of more than 54 points per game in their 34 matchups with Division I opponents since 2001.
That bleak history raises an obvious question: Why would a 1,200-student Georgia liberal arts college seldom competitive in the National Christian College Athletic Association agree to face so many Division I foes? Toccoa Falls (0-6) has seven Division I opponents on its non-league schedule this season including upcoming games against Liberty, High Point, Presbyterian and Gardner-Webb.
To some extent, the answer is money. Toccoa Falls receives roughly $5,000 from its opponent each time it agrees to play a road game at a Division I school with no return game the following year. That sum pales in comparison to the $75,000 to $100,000 that lower-level Division I schools get for playing guarantee games against marquee programs, but it still helps pay for new uniforms, warmups, backpacks and shoes for Toccoa Falls players each season.
“Money games help fund an underfunded program,” Hall said. “Everywhere I’ve coached, I’ve always asked our guys, ‘Do you want to play a Division I game? What’s it going to do to your morale?’ Usually, they’re excited to experience what it’s like stepping into a Division I facility and challenging themselves against that competition. Ignorantly or not, they all say yes.”
An extra $5,000 matters to Toccoa Falls, a school so cash-strapped that athletic department employees typically fill two or three positions. Hall is also the athletic director and interim women’s basketball coach at Toccoa Falls. Baseball coach Jeff Mullikin serves as an assistant athletic director to Hall and women’s volleyball coach Selina Slate is also the school’s assistant library director.
For a program like Toccoa Falls, finding a small-conference Division I opponent willing to play is never hard. Schools in the Atlantic Sun or Big South try to build confidence by scheduling winnable home games against lower-level foes and there’s far greater risk of a loss against a quality Division II or NAIA opponent than there is playing an NCCAA program.
The dilemma for a school like Toccoa Falls is deciding how many games against higher-level competition to schedule each season. Most NCCAA programs face no more than one or two Division I opponents per season, enough to give their players a memorable experience and rake in a little extra cash but not so many that it destroys team morale.
That Toccoa Falls played four such games last season and seven more this season borders on malpractice. Hall inherited this year’s schedule from the former coaching staff too late to change it. He intends to play no more than 2 to 3 Division I opponents per year in the future.
“A couple games a year can be a recruiting tactic, but you don’t want a young team to have to do this,” Hall said. “It’s tough. Our schedule was basically completed by the previous coach, and I think he might have been a little over-ambitious.”
Seven Division I games is too many in any year for Toccoa Falls, but the freshman-laden Eagles were especially ill-prepared this season. Only two players from last year’s rotation returned this season and most of the rest are newcomers that Hall hastily recruited.
Since Toccoa Falls is a non-scholarship faith-based institution, it shrinks the pool of players Hall can recruit. Hall typically scours Georgia and neighboring states for Division III- or NAIA-level prospects who might find the program’s culture attractive.
After Toccoa Falls lost by 101 points to Appalachian State earlier this month, the lopsided score drew outsized attention. The Eagles became a target of ridicule everywhere from SportsCenter, to social media, to their own campus.
When Hall addressed his players after the game, he touched on some of the same themes that he did beforehand. He told his players they would have to compete harder and play smarter in future games this season.
Left unsaid was the obvious. In at least seven games this season, Toccoa Falls isn’t playing to win. All it can do is try not to be embarrassed.
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