By Chris Whitfield
When former North Murray High School basketball standout Zach Vess chose to sign with Emmanuel College last spring, he said it was his feeling that he would fit in well with the rest of the team that was the deciding factor.
That group dynamic paid huge dividends this year for the Lions, who lost 70-65 to Vanguard College of Costa Mesa, Calif., in the NAIA Division I title game on Tuesday night in Kansas City, Mo.
Vess, who was a spot player during his freshman campaign, said he felt blessed to be part of an experience he will never forget.
“I am lucky I got put on such a good team,” said Vess, who was chosen The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year as a senior. “I didn’t expect to come in as a freshman this season and have a huge impact, but things went so much better than what I thought they would. It exceeded what I was expecting, and when the team got on a roll, we were playing at a fantastic level.”
Emmanuel College — located in Franklin Springs, 30 miles northeast of Athens — was in its final year of competition in the NAIA before beginning the transition to NCAA Division II. The Lions, who finished second in the Southern States Athletic Conference this season, will join the Carolinas Conference, but they will not be eligible to compete for league and NCAA championships until Vess’ senior season.
Vess was a dominant high school player, particularly during his final two seasons as he helped lead North Murray to back-to-back state tournament appearances. He finished his high school days with 1,601 points and 1,205 rebounds and was a member of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Boys Basketball Team as a sophomore and junior in addition to his senior year honors.
With the Lions this season, he played in 21 of the team’s 37 games, averaging seven minutes. He finished with 34 points and 40 rebounds while shooting 44.8 percent from the floor. He was on the floor for just one of the Lions’ five games in the NAIA national tournament, but still had an experience few first-year players enjoy.
The Lions had six seniors on the roster as they went 33-4, setting the program record for wins.
“It was definitely a learning experience my first year here,” Vess said. “I tried to learn from the older guys. I got a lot of experience, but it is tough going from being a four-year starter and the captain of your team to being a freshman and looking to everyone else for what you are supposed to do.”
Vess said leadership from the upperclassmen made things much better for the team.
“The team chemistry was incredible,” Vess said. “It was such a bond, and everyone enjoyed being around each other, and it was amazing how close we all became. The toughest part is the season is so long and being away from home. It gets tough, but I have made some really good friends and that has helped out a lot.”