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Larry Hunter Has Created ‘Expectations’ in Cullowhee

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Western Carolina's success on the college basketball hardwood includes only one NCAA Tournament, which came in 1996, as the 16th seeded Catamounts faced top-seed Purdue in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Catamounts, who were led by star guard-turned-assistant coach Anquell McCollum were one shot short of springing one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history by becoming the first No. 16 seed to ever upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Joel Fleming's three-pointer clanged off the back of the rim and Scott Scholtz's subsequent rebound and shot as the buzzer sounded at The Pit also hit the back rim, and the Catamounts walked away with the heartbreak of a 73-71 setback.

Since Larry Hunter arrived as the head coach prior to the 2004-05 season, the expectation level has changed for the Catamounts, and now, garnering a seed in the Southern Conference Tournament is now an expectation and no longer a surprise. Some regarded that magical season under Hopkins an anomalie, as the Catamounts somehow just had a couple of good seasons, but it was out of the norm.

If anything, the eras that Hopkins and before him Dees defined where eras in which the two head coaches proved that it was possible to win and compete at the highest level in the Southern Conference and beyond

Ever since that magical run back in 1996, it's been a goal for the program to get back to that point. The Catamounts would capture lightning in a bottle for a few seasons under the direction of first Benny Dees and then Phil Hopkins, bringing in the likes of players like Frankie King (1993-95) and Anquell McCollum (1992-96).

After Hopkins was fired following the 1999-2000 season, the Catamount basketball program would seemingly enter a phase of deep freeze, which would seem to coincide with Hopkins' departure.

Hopkins would never be able to capture the excitement and success in his remaining seasons as the Catamount basketball coach in Cullowhee. The Pelzer, S.C., native did lead the Catamounts to a 14-14 season in his final campaign of 1998-99 as the head coach, but fourth, fifth and sixth-place finishes in the SoCon's North Division in his final three campaigns as head coach proved to be his undoing. Despite finishing second in the South Division a year after the title run, the Catamounts were knocked out of the Southern Conference Tournament after only one game, as lower seeded Appalachian State, who had to play the night before to open the tournament, sent the Catamounts packing with a 86-69 win in Greensboro.

A switch to the North Division a year later would make things even tougher for Hopkins and the Catamounts, and the Catamounts would never finish higher than fourth again in the league over his final three seasons.

He compiled a record of 65-76 during his career, which included a 32-43 record in SoCon games. Even in his best season, which of course was the 1995-96 campaign, the Catamounts managed only a 7-7 South Division record, tying with Chattanooga for the top spot in the division. In that era of the SoCon, which was before the arrival of College of Charleston and UNC Greensboro, the league's power was in the North Division, which featured Davidson, Marshall and Appalachian State.

The Steve Shurina era was a forgettable one for Catamount fans other than the fact it produced one of the program's all-time greatest talents, in Kevin Martin (2000-03).

Great players have always seemingly been a part of the program's tradition in the Southern Conference since joining in 1976. The Catamounts have had some greats during their time as a league member, including the likes of Bubba Wilson Greg Dennis and Ronnie Carr in the Catamounts first decade as a member. The 1990s would follow with greats like the aforementioned McCollum, King and 1998 Southern Conference Player of the Year Bobby Phillips.

Several players have made a name for themselves and the Western Carolina program, with Carr becoming the first player to ever hit a three-point shot in Division I college basketball, while Martin went on to become an NBA star following his departure from Western after only three years.

Prior to the 2005-06 season, a new man was hired to hopefully change the fortunes of Catamount basketball, and it's safe to say Larry Hunter has made a huge difference in how the program is now regarded as nationally as a formidable mid-major program.

Hunter, who came to Cullowhee from North Carolina State, where he spent four seasons as Herb Sendek's right-hand man, and prior to that stint in Raleigh, Hunter had spent 25 seasons as a head coach at both Ohio and Division III Wittenberg (1976-89), where he helped the Springfield, OH school to a national title in his first season as head coach. Ironically, it would be the first season in which the Catamounts would play basketball in the Southern Conference.

Following his 13 seasons and 305 wins as the head coach at Wittenberg, Hunter was hired in Athens, OH, as the new leader of the Ohio Bobcats in the Mid-American Conference. In his fifth season at the helm of the Bobcats' basketball program, he had Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, and had one of the best players in the country in forward Gary Trent. He would win 49 games in two seasons, leading the Bobcats to an NCAA Tournament and NIT in what were two of the greatest seasons in that program's history.

Despite the unprecedented success, Hunter had apparently worn out his welcome, having not led the program to either an NIT or NCAA berth in some six years, and the news was to say the least baffling for a head coach that had won 204 games in his 12 seasons at the helm, with just two losing campaigns. The news was also shocking when you consider that he won 56 games in his final three seasons. Perhaps if the CIT or CBI had been around as options back then, the decision would have been as sudden as it was, but what ultimately was a puzzling decision to most objective college basketball pundits, would be a blessing in disguise in time for Western Carolina.

When Hunter took over in Cullowhee, he inherited a program on life support. The program had dissension between its former head coach and some of its players, and Hunter's first job would be building up the confidence of his players, and improving the toughness of his team, and finally, just being there for some players that felt a bit jaded and cynical about coaches in general as a result of the previous staff.

The players learned to trust the new man in charge, and in time, Hunter would not only build the Catamount program back to a respectable one, he would take it to a place it hadn't been as a Southern Conference member, which was making it a consistent winner.

Three-straight losing seasons for Hunter had been one of the most frustrating runs in the veteran head coaches career. For a coach that came to Cullowhee with 509 victories in his career, a run of three-straight losing seasons. In fact, in his previous 25 seasons as a head coach prior to arriving in Cullowhee, he had only two losing campaigns, which came nine years apart during his time at Ohio.

The one thing Hunter was doing during those lean years at Western was stockpile talent. He brought in players to Cullowhee that would end up up being the foundation of success. He put coaches on staff that were former players, surrounding himself with coaches that knew the program and had poured out blood, sweat and tears for the name on the front of their uniforms.

First, he brought in what many consider the face of Catamount basketball, in Anquell McCollum, and then welcomed assistants Willie Freeman and Brigham Waginger to the staff. Three former Catamounts on staff were a stroke of brilliance by the cagy veteran head coach, which knew that having guys around that not only knew the program, but had a lot more heart invested in the school than just any assistant coach. Freeman had been at Western during the lean years, as he transferred from Spartanburg Methodist, and spent his final two seasons playing for Shurina.

It meant a little extra for those guys, and with McCollum around, he has a piece of Catamount lore and a silent motivation for every Catamount class that comes through, as one look at McCollum's championship ring--the school's greatest accomplishment as a Southern Conference program and lone conference title in either of the two major sports--speaks for itself.

Waginger was big part of Hunter's first success as Catamount head coach and a big reason for it. He was part of that foundation built by Hunter in his time in Cullowhee, and now he has a chance to help the Catamounts to make that next step, which is a second Southern Conference title. Waginger is one of the greatest defenders in Southern Conference and Western Carolina history, as he finished with a school-record 285 thefts, which shattered the previous school record of 219 set by Henry Logan in the late 1960s. Waginger's 285 career steals ranks third all-time in SoCon history.

With those three on board, the Catamounts have ties that know what it takes to bring this program back to the NCAA Tournament, and with Waginger, McCollum and Freeman on staff, each brings different experiences as a Catamount to the staff, and all are reliable to give the veteran head coach insight into what the program needs to do in order to get back to the Big Dance for the first time in 19 years.

Hunter's breakthrough seasons come in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns. Western would post its first winning season at Western Carolina in 23 years in 2008-09, as the Catamounts tied for the North Division crown and finished with a 16-15 overall mark.

A year later, the Catamounts would return four starters and would post its first 20-win season as a Division I program, finishing the campaign with a 22-12 overall record--good enough to garner the Catamounts a postseason invite to the CIT. Though it would lose in the SoCon semifinals to Wofford and in the CIT opening round to Marshall, a stake had been put in the ground by Hunter and the Catamount program, and a confirmation that this was a program that could indeed take that ultimate next step.

The Catamounts also had a win over Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals early in the campaign, which raised more than a few eyebrows. The Catamounts also set a new three-point field goals record for the third time in Hunter's five seasons as the coach, canning 274 triple on the season.

A third-straight Southern Conference North Division crown would follow a year later and another trip to the semifinals of the league tournament, led by dynamic freshman guard Trey Sumler, who claimed SoCon Freshman of the Year accolades in the 2010-11 season. Unfortunately, Hunter and the Catamounts' season would have the same stopping point and the same team yielding further advancement was Wofford, who was on its way to its second-straight Southern Conference title, as Western fell short of making it back to the title game at the penultimate stage once again.

Though the 2011-12 regular-season didn't go as well as the Catamounts would have hoped, Western would catch fire in mid-February, finishing the season with a flurry. Led by the backcourt tandem of Keaton Cole and Sumler, the Catamounts won their final seven league games heading into the conference tournament, which was about a 45-minute drive from Cullowhee, in Asheville, N.C. The Catamounts continued their red hot play in the leaghue tournament, and were not afforded the luxury of a bye after finishing third in the SoCon North.

The Catamounts dispatched, The Citadel (68-56), nemesis Wofford (82-59) and surprising UNCG (82-77) to meet league titan Davidson. The Catamounts would give the Wildcats the fight of their season in the conference tournament title game before a raucous crowd, eventually falling 93-91 in double overtime.

Two years later, Hunter had the Catamounts back in the title game again, only this time losing to Wofford, 54-51, in another classic in Asheville. The difference was a made Karl Cochran three and a missed triple from Sumler. Last season, the Catamounts met Wofford again in the semifinals, but once again the Terriers would bite the Catamounts with a 73-61 win en route to a second-straight league title. Though the Catamounts finished 15-17 overall, they ended the season in the top four of the SoCon's regular-season standings, which was good enough to garner the Catamounts a first-round bye.

The Catamounts graduated what was the league's leading scorer from a year ago, in James Sinclair, and though the Catamounts returned four starters, many thought it might be too much to overcome, picking the Catamounts seventh in the preseason media and coaches polls.

However, Hunter and Western have found their answer to the graduation of Sinclair in the form of Mike Brown, who is off to an impressive early-season start averaging 19.2 PPG to rank third in the league in scoring through five games. Not only has Brown stepped up, he's had help in the form of senior forward Torrion Brummitt, who is averaging 16.2 PPG to rank sixth in the league in scoring.

The Catamounts have a pair of tough setbacks to High Point and Charleston on the road, with the loss in the Low Country this past weekend coming by just one point (57-56). The Catamounts head to unbeaten South Carolina (6-0) tonight to battle Frank Martin's upstart Gamecocks at Colonial Life Arena.

If all the research done for this story proves one thing, it proves that Hunter is a proven winner no matter the circumstances, and given his career successes, expecting anything less than another run at the top of the league this season would be an amateur hour move.

Hunter has raised the bar of Catamount basketball, and the only question remains is how long it will take before they clear that bar for a second Southern Conference title. With 666 career wins as a track record, Hunter has been a coach that has trended upwards no matter where he has been, leaving Catamount fans hopeful and excited about the very near future of the Catamount program.