Breakfast of Champion






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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Author: Michael, Matt
Date published: November 3, 2010

Nate Champion was watching SportsCenter in the living room of his Logansport, Ind., home last Nov. 3 when ESPN switched to last-minute live coverage of a college basketball exhibition game.

Champion, a standout high school player, knew all about one of the schools, Syracuse University. But he had never heard of the other one, Le Moyne College. "Wow," Champion thought. "What's going on?"

Le Moyne was ahead 78-76 at the Carrier Dome. But Wes Johnson-an Iowa State transfer who was playing in his second game for the Orange-sank a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left to give SU a 79-78 lead. Le Moyne broke SU's press and the Orange never got settled on defense. Le Moyne's Chris Johnson wriggled free on the left wing and swished a 3-pointer with 8.3 seconds left to give the Dolphins an 81-79 advantage.

Wes Johnson, who would lead SU to a 30-5 record, a Sweet 16 appearance and be named the 2010 Big East Conference Player of the Year, missed a 3-pointer with three seconds left. The Dolphins sank a free throw at the end to clinch the 82-79 win. Le Moyne, the tiny Jesuit school located about six miles from the Carrier Dome, had pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college sports history.

"How is this happening right now?" Champion asked himself.

Since the highlights were plastered all over ESPN that night, Champion learned that Le Moyne is a Division II basketball team from the Northeast-10 Conference. The Dolphins' improbable victory that night planted a seed in Champion's head, and six months later he signed to play at Le Moyne. "Before, I didn't really want to go Division II," he said. "But after hearing that and seeing that, it changed the way I thought about it."

Champion will get his own crack at the Orange when Le Moyne visits SU at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the Carrier Dome. It'll be the sixth time in seven years that the Dolphins and SU will play an exhibition game. The Dolphins' unlikely win over the Orange last year was just the first step in Champion's 550-mile journey from Logansport to Le Moyne Heights. Several other factors fell into place for Champion and Le Moyne coach Steve Evans.

Throughout his senior year at Logansport High School, Champion was looking at mid-major Division I schools and smaller schools in Florida, Missouri and Indiana. While Champion made it clear he wanted to play basketball, the schools weren't sure what to make of him. That's because Champion is also an outstanding baseball pitcher, and he spent the spring and summer before his junior year playing baseball instead of AAU basketball, where college prospects put themselves on the recruiting map.

Last spring, Logansport head coach Mark Victor sent e-mails to many college basketball coaches, including Evans. The e-mail described Champion's attributes and included a YouTube video of Champion playing basketball.

Evans was interested, but he wanted to see Champion play in person. Fortunately for Evans, Champion was selected to play in an Indiana all-star game with several Division I recruits on Sunday, April 18. Unfortunately for Evans, his modest recruiting budget was shot-and it was already Thursday. So Evans hopped on a 10 p.m. train out of Syracuse on Saturday, arrived in South Bend, Ind., at 9 a.m. Sunday, grabbed a cab to the airport to rent a car, and drove about two hours to Marion, Ind., for the North/South Indiana All-Star Classic.

Evans watched Champion, liked what he saw and had dinner with Champion's family after the game. The two sides hit it off, and Evans asked Champion to make an official recruiting visit to Le Moyne a few weeks later.

Bill Champion, Nate's father, said a lot of schools had started to show interest in his son around that time. But what helped separate Le Moyne from the pack was the memory of the Dolphins' upset over SU. "When you're talking to a team that beat Syracuse, that's something special," said Bill Champion, who's now in his 12th year as an assistant basketball coach at Logansport. "We were impressed by that. It was like David beating Goliath."

Nate Champion knew after his visit to Le Moyne that he wanted to play for the Dolphins. He said everyone he met was helpful and he was confident he'd have the support system he'd need being a 10-hour drive from home. "He's where he should be. I believe that," Bill Champion said. "I want him to go and play where he can be successful and have fun."

Nate Champion, who is majoring in biology, is a 6-foot-3, 178-pound left-hander whom Evans will use at point guard, shooting guard and small forward. Champion should have an opportunity to play, because the Dolphins are reloading after losing their leading scorer and rebounder, Laurence Ekperigin, and stellar point guard Damani Corbin.

Most of Le Moyne's other freshmen had either signed before last year's SU game or were redshirted last season. But the Syracuse game did help Le Moyne get one other newcomer, Wagner College transfer Colin Seckal, who also lives in Indiana. "That game helped so much in that it gave us an identity to be able to recruit outside of a comfort area that we've been used to in the past," Evans said. "And the fact that Nate said yes, it leads to the next kid, possibly, out in Indiana."

In the end, Champion didn't base his decision solely on that shocking night last November. But Le Moyne 82, Syracuse 79 didn't hurt, either. "Honestly, I don't know if I would have heard of Le Moyne {without that game}," Champion said. "It gets kids' attention when you can say we're a Division II school and we beat Syracuse."

Tickets for the game at the Carrier Dome, 900 Irving Ave., cost $10 for adults, $6 for children, and are available by calling 443-2121 or going to www.suathletics.com. Members of Le Moyne's Hardwood Club will receive tickets; for more information, visit www.lemoynedolphins.com or call 445-4412.

-Matttt Michael

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