Twenty-win seasons, league titles, staying power in the NCAA tournament.
For decades, Randolph-Macon University men’s basketball head coaches had done such things with stunning regularity.
Now, it was St. John’s Catholic Prep grad Josh Merkel’s turn to maintain those high standards.
Fresh from guiding Salisbury University — his alma mater — to its most successful season in recent memory, Merkel was hired to helm the Yellow Jackets in 2015.
His first year, Randolph-Macon finished 13-14. That hardly qualified as a disaster, to be sure, but the Yellow Jackets had won at least 20 games during each of the previous eight seasons.
“That first year was tough, like all transitions. We lost eight seniors from the year before and lost Nathan [Davis, his predecessor as head coach] and the coaching staff,” Merkel said. “So, we battled through, and we learned a ton, especially me, and here we are.”
Like the four other Randolph-Macon men’s basketball coaches over the past 59 years, Merkel is now running a program that racks up accomplishments season after season, and he recently won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s Bob Johnson Coach of the Year award for the third straight year.
The Yellow Jackets, ranked No. 3 in the D3Hoops.com poll, won their fourth straight regular-season Old Dominion Athletic Conference title, posted their second straight 20-win season and went even further in the NCAA Division III Tournament than last year, when they lost by a point to eventual finalist Swarthmore in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Yellow Jackets improved to 28-2 when they beat TCNJ 85-71 in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen on March 7. They were set to host Yeshiva in the Elite Eight, a dream scenario for a Randolph-Macon team that had won 27 straight home games, but the rest of the tournament was abruptly canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite that unexpected end, the run of success was further proof that Merkel has Randolph-Macon’s program playing at the high level it’s grown accustomed to over the years. Granted, Merkel was quick to point out that assistants like Dave Matturo (former director of basketball operations at Mount St. Mary’s) and Shawn Boggs, who have been with him all five years at Randolph-Macon, and a tight-knit group of players have been just as instrumental.
“I think that award should be changed to staff of the year,” Merkel said.
Merkel was once a staff member at the Virginia college. In 2010-11, he served as a Randolph-Macon assistant under Davis. The Yellow Jackets enjoyed a typically successful season that year, going 25-5, sharing the ODAC regular-season title, winning the conference tournament and advancing to the second round of the NCAAs.
But by the next season, Merkel delved into his first job as a head coach at Salisbury, where he played four years before graduating in 2001. Coaching seemed inevitable for the Walkersville native.
His mother, Monica, played hoops for Maryland. As an eighth-grader, he taped Billy Donovan-led Florida games. And when he came to St. John’s (it was St. John’s Prospect Hall back then), he bonded with JV coach Kevin Sutton. By his senior year, Merkel was a sharpshooter for varsity coach Stu Vetter’s powerhouse team.
A stint as a graduate assistant at West Virginia under John Beilein, five seasons as an assistant at Eastern Kentucky with Jeff Neubauer and his season with Davis at Randolph-Macon helped prepare Merkel for his tenure at Salisbury.
During the 2014-15 season, Merkel led the Sea Gulls to a 21-8 record — their first 20-win season since 1996-97 — and the second CAC title in program history. Making their first NCAA tourney appearance since 1997, Salisbury beat Eastern Connecticut State before falling to Trinity in the second round. Merkel ended up being named the CAC coach of the year.
Soon, he was heading to Randolph-Macon.
“It was tough because you’re leaving your alma mater,” Merkel said. “It was a great place, there were great people, and my wife is an alum there as well and worked there as well.”
But the Richmond, Virginia, area was an attractive destination.
“And knowing the Randolph-Macon tradition and what we could do there, you’re just going to be a part of some special teams, a special group,” he said.
After his challenging first season, the Yellow Jackets went 17-9 in 2016-17, sharing the ODAC regular-season title with Guilford. The next season, Randolph-Macon went 18-8 and won the regular-season title outright, earning Merkel his first ODAC coach of the year award.
And last year, the Yellow Jackets went 27-4 and reached the NCAA sweet sixteen.
“We had nine returners from that season that were really motivated to go, not just beyond that point, but we were playing with a purpose, for sure,” Merkel said of this year’s squad.
One of those returners was Buzz Anthony, a second-team All-America guard. He averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds a game.
“A really special player that the other guys feed off of,” Merkel said. “And he makes everybody else better as well.”
Stingy defense also played a vital role. The Yellow Jackets held opponents to 57.3 points a game, which led all Division III teams, and their field goal percentage defense of 37.7 was second in the nation.
“So we make it tough, try to make every basket tough,” Merkel said. “We pressure the ball, but we cover for each other.”
Such methods helped the Yellow Jackets, who won by an average margin of 17.9 points this season, roll over TCNJ in the Sweet Sixteen. And the high of that win was matched by the prospect of hosting an Elite Eight game in front of a sellout crowd. But after a practice, they learned their season was over because of the coronavirus.
“The initial reaction was anger and disappointment and shock and sadness,” Merkel said. “I think that’s morphed and changed as we’ve learned more about how this pandemic is just affecting everyone else. There’s a much bigger picture than just a basketball game.”