By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
Clinton Community College is experiencing an invasion from the Virgin Islands this year, with four players who call the Islands home on the Cougars basketball team.
The Cougars (5-13) have struggled at times this season but pulled off one of their biggest wins in years Jan. 16 against Des Moines Area Community College. It has also been a struggle at times for the Islanders adjusting to life in the Midwest.
“I never heard of Clinton,” sophomore Charles Pemberton said. “It was different. On the drive from the airport, there was a lot of farms, corn, cows. You don’t see any of that in the Islands.”
Pemberton played in the United States last season, suiting up for Moberly (Mo.) Area Community College, so he had a leg up in one area on freshmen Kimani Stevens, Dione Blyden and BeeJay Caleb.
“Last year, I was totally unprepared,” Pemberton said. “All I had was T-shirts and short pants. The first couple times it snowed, I went out in my slippers. My socks got soaked. I was so cold. I learned. This year, I got boots and winterwear.”
Stevens had at least some warning of the hard Midwest winter.
“I heard it was going to be cold,” he said. “I’d never been in snow or this type of weather before. I tried to get what I needed, but I was still cold.
“We never get below 65 degrees. Coming here, it’s a big difference.
“You’ve got to layer up. Put on jackets, thermals underneath the jackets, gloves, whatever we can.”
So how do athletes from the Virgin Islands end up in Clinton.
“One of the coaches in the Virgin Islands, he went to this school,” Pemberton said.
That coach is Steve Parillon, a 2002 honorable mention All-American for Clinton, who now runs the Hoop It Up Foundation in the British Virgin Islands. Parillon ended up in Clinton almost by accident.
“Back in 2000, coach (Bob) Walker got a tip that there might be some talent in the British Virgin Islands,” Parillon said. “So he made the trip down. We were showcasing our talents. I was older than the other players. I was actually practicing for the national team and not on the radar. When the national team scrimmaged the younger players, Coach was like, ‘That’s the player I want. Why is he not in the showcase?’ I told Coach I was not coming to school. I had a young daughter. I had a 9-to-5 (job). Obviously before the summer was up, I changed my mind and made my way here.”
One of the programs run by Parillon and his foundation is the Virgin Islands Showcase Camp, which is designed to give basketball players from the Islands a better chance at a college scholarship.
“I felt like someone like me, with connections, was needed on the Island to help kids develop their game and get them off to schools,” Parillon said. “I looked around for talent on players like Kimani or Charles to try to give them the same opportunity I had.”
What might seem like the one constant — basketball — also differs from the Islands to the mainland.
“Basketball is more fast-paced and fastbreak,” Stevens said. “Coming here, they have a lot of set plays. We don’t really do set plays at home. We freelance and get one-on-ones and a lot of fastbreaks.
“You’ve got to set screens and know what you’re doing. You really got to use your head in the American way.”
Stevens said it took some time getting used to Clinton coach Joe Shovlain and “the American way” of basketball.
“The first couple times at practice it was hard to catch on to the plays — like the position you have to be in and where at what time,” he said. “But you get the hang of it after going through it over and over and over.”
Shovlain said he was glad to have the Islanders as he is trying to build the program into a force.
“Joe talked to Coach Walker and Coach Walker said, ‘Oh, yeah, those (Virgin Islands) kids are good,’ ” Parillon said. “(Shovlain) was like, ‘Send me as many (Virgin Islands) kids as you can. We heard that you guys can play and that you’re good people.’ ... Next year you might see six kids from the Virgin Islands here. We’ll keep the trend going.”
Pemberton is from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, while Stevens lives in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
“There’s not much difference,” Stevens said. “We still use American money, everything like that. ... It’s just a boat ride away.
Pemberton said on St. Thomas, there are two public high schools and four or five private schools, which doesn’t lend itself to varied competition.
“We play schools from St. Croix, which is another island,” Pemberton said.
“They’re not really far, just like a half-hour boat ride away,” Stevens said.
Stevens and Pemberton both said they missed the beach the most.
Stevens, who is studying business/finance, said he planned to return to Clinton for his sophomore season.
“If I don’t make it in basketball — even playing overseas somewhere good — I plan to go back home and take over my parents’ business or own my own business,” he said.
As a sophomore, Pemberton has a tougher decision to make. The pre-med major said he was hoping to transfer to a Division I school for his two remaining years of eligibility. As to whether he stays when his basketball career ends, that’s still up in the air.
“It all depends on if I get a good job up here,” Pemberton said. “With this economy, if you get a job you stay.
“I would visit a lot if I do stay up here.”
He wouldn’t want to spend too much time away from the beach, or in the cold.