The rebirth of App State men’s basketball


Ashton Woodruff

Head coach Dustin Kerns high fives the Mountaineer student section after App State defeated Warren Wilson 142-74 Nov. 7, 2022.

James Parker, Reporter

“This is a Division I basketball practice. If your coaches have to tell you to talk to each other on offense, then maybe basketball isn’t your sport,” said men’s basketball head coach Dustin Kerns as the team stopped practicing. 

Kerns’ words echoed through the mostly empty stadium as the App State men’s basketball team reset their offensive drill. After he instructed the other coaches to stay completely silent throughout the rest of the drill, Kerns blew the whistle and the practice continued. 

The Mountaineer men’s basketball team has found consistent success in recent years, completing three straight winning seasons for the first time in over 20 years.

Although they won 54 total games during that span, one win stood out above the rest. On March 8, 2021, the Mountaineers suited up to face off against the Georgia State Panthers in the Sun Belt Conference Championship. A 32-point performance from former guard Michael Almonacy propelled the Black and Gold to an 80-73 win. They were Sun Belt champions for the first time ever.

This win secured the Mountaineers a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years. Although they would eventually lose to Norfolk State in the First Four game, their appearance in the tournament represented years of hard work from everyone involved in the program.

Former App State guard Justin Forrest, who is second all-time in career points and sixth all-time in career assists in school history, was the leader of the team throughout the 2020-21 season. He was named to the Sun Belt All-Tournament team after averaging 20 points and 3.4 assists per game throughout their championship run, but credits the team for possessing the desire to change the narrative.

“We wanted to show not just our school but the people of the world that App State can and will compete and give our all,” Forrest said.

This success took years to culminate, and while they finished the 2018-19 season with a losing record of 11-21, the Mountaineers made a big leap the following season, finishing with a winning record of 18-15.

“I knew in my junior year that we would be really good,” Forrest said. “We just needed to understand how to play as a team and really buy in and believe in each other.”

Even though that year ended with a loss in the Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinals, it gave a glimpse of what was to come in the 2020-21 season, which brought the Sun Belt title to Boone for the first time ever.

“We are all addicted to getting that feeling again and getting back to that moment,” Kerns said. “It was incredible to be a part of something that’s very, very hard to be a part of.”

Although they were not able to capture the conference title again last season, players and coaches alike have high expectations for this year’s campaign. 

“We all just want each other to get better and we are gonna push each other to make sure that we get the best out of one another,” senior forward Donovan Gregory said. 

With six new players on the roster and six players returning, the locker room is sure to be a little bit different with several of last year’s leaders gone. As a senior, Gregory will take on a larger leadership role both on and off the court in this new look locker room. He believes this starts with the individual relationships with all of his teammates.

“These are my brothers. I’ll go to war for them every day. They got my back, I got their back and they know that,” Gregory said. “That just helps me out every day because I know they got my back through whatever.”

Graduate student forward Tamell Pearson is one of the six new players that will suit up for the Black and Gold this season. After playing for two years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and two more years at Western Illinois, Pearson decided to come to the High Country.

“It was the attention to detail that the coaches gave me on my visit,” Pearson said. “They broke down my game, other teams gave me what they liked, but these coaches gave me what they didn’t like, so I thought that was very interesting.”

While the new look roster features guys with years of college experience, the process of adding six new players in the offseason still comes with its challenges.

“Just being able to add some experienced bodies with losing some graduating and experienced bodies was part of the plan,” Kerns said. “Certainly it’s challenging on both ends.”

In addition to bringing in players that have prior experience, many of the returning players will be expected to take on a larger role with the team this year. While junior guard Micheal Eads Jr. was only a freshman when the Black and Gold took home the Sun Belt trophy, he learned valuable lessons from the leaders of that year’s team that will help him fulfill a leadership role this year.

“Being a hard worker and always being willing to put in the hard work,” Eads Jr. said. “Even when some days you feel like you don’t want to do it, you always gotta put your mind to it.”

With the new roster having some preseason and practice reps under their belt together, Kerns has his sights set on the regular season matchups that they will play against non-conference teams to prepare them for Sun Belt play.

“We’ve got another competitive non-conference schedule,” Kerns said. “With Louisville and Wake Forest, you know we are certainly excited about it.” 

While the veterans of the program recognize the impact that former players have had on the team’s success in recent years, they look forward to beginning the new season in the pursuit of the conference championship trophy that they held less than two years ago. 

The Mountaineers tipped off their season with a record-setting victory over Warren Wilson Nov. 7 in the Holmes Convocation Center.