Marymount College is a pleasant little school overlooking the Smoky Hill River and a large grain elevator in Salina, the central Kansas town where the movie Picnic was filmed. Across the street from a graveyard and next to a country club, the campus is a tranquil place where approximately 700 students study under a faculty that is about half lay teachers and half Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, the order that founded the college in 1922. Few people east of Abilene or west of Dodge City have ever heard of Marymount, and those who have often confuse it with schools of the same name in California, Florida, New York and Virginia.
That situation is likely to change soon. For the sixth straight season, Marymount has a strong basketball team, a team that improved its record to 16-2 last weekend, that led the touring Soviet national squad by 18 points before losing by three and that has a decent shot at winning the NAIA's version of the national championship. All of which is not bad, considering that eight years ago there were no males in the student body.
As so often is the case when an obscure college suddenly appears with a sparkling record, the reason for Mary-mount's success is a good coach who recruits far and wide. This particular coach is an ecumenical fellow named Ken Cochran, who used to have winning records at the Methodist school across town, Kansas Wesleyan, and now is a favorite of the Catholic nuns at Marymount. Cochran, it turns out, is a devoted member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Marymount players come from as far away as Washington, D.C. and San Bernardino, Calif. Herb Dawson of the Bronx, N.Y. earned his high school diploma in the Air Force and is now getting good grades at Marymount. Salina resident Nino Samuel and New Yorker Wes Ramseur are transfers from Kansas and Carolina A&T, respectively. Junior-college grads, late bloomers larger schools passed over and athletes whose grades prevented them from playing for many NCAA colleges are the assortment from which Cochran has built a 145-22 record at Marymount.
The team's official nickname is the Spartans, but because Cochran's six teams have been mostly black and no more Kansan than a cha-cha band, some Salinans refer to Marymount as "the Grambling of the Plains" or "the New Jersey Olympic team." Most townspeople have been more positive, especially Mrs. Alice Smoot, a Presbyterian who donated most of the money to build the college's new gym. She died two weeks ago, and the team has dedicated the rest of its season to her.
Sister Evangeline Thomas, a teacher and administrator at the school for many years, is probably the Spartans' most avid fan. She scores each game, keeps cumulative statistics and somehow manages to discover numerous important teachers' conferences that just happen to be going on near the sites of away games.
Cochran's first important recruit, in 1971, was Sylvester Cuyler from Trenton, N.J., who was one of the last players cut by the ABA Nets at the start of the current pro season. "He was the franchise," says Cochran, and he helped Marymount land an even better player from Trenton, Jimmy Hearns.
Hearns, a 6'4½" forward, was a second-team NAIA All-America last season, when Marymount finished with a 29-6 record. This year he is averaging more than 20 points a game, even though the Spartan roster is loaded and players constantly go in and out of the lineup.
The best of the others are Guard Louis Grimsley, a former high school All-America from Newark, N.J. whose shooting almost ruined the Soviets; San Bernardino's Keith Lee, the tallest regular at 6'7"; Forward James (Bull) Gorham, a 6'2" leaper from Washington, D.C.; Guards Tom Rothschild of St. Louis and Steve Skeldon, whose father is manager of the Toledo, Ohio zoo; service vet Dawson and local lad Samuel.
The Spartans' only intercollegiate losses this season occurred at Fort Hays (Kans.) State, a team Marymount had beaten in Salina by 20, and against Henderson State of Arkansas in overtime. In UPI's small-college ratings, Marymount is fourth behind Grand Canyon, Kentucky State and St. Mary's of Texas.
Last weekend's victory, a 91-72 laugher over Benedictine of Atchison, Kans. in which Marymount's full-court press caused 23 turnovers, gave Cochran a chance to show off all his troops. Hearns scored 20 points, and Grimsley had 23.
Sister Evangeline was happy about the triumph, but not too pleased with the quality of the opposition. "If Jimmy had played the whole game he would have scored 40 points," she said.