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Mahomet's Coleman helping Cobras on national stage

Mar. 19—CHAMPAIGN — Grant Coleman's path to winding up in junior college basketball isn't one many follow.

Two stops at NCAA Division I schools, a short time away from basketball and an old coach that twice tried to recruit him back to the sport are memories in the Mahomet-Seymour graduate's past. At the present and in the future, the former standout with the Bulldogs is trying to help Parkland reel in a national title.

"This is the most exciting time of the year," Coleman said. "This is what we planned for all year. I think we're ready, and we're going to go out and win."

Coleman and his Parkland teammates have turned heads throughout the 2023-24 season, at one point topping the NJCAA Division II national poll after a 15-0 start before winning a Region 24 title and advancing to their ninth national tournament.

They seventh-seeded Cobras (28-4) face 10th-seeded St. Clair (Mich.) (25-6) at Mary Miller Gym at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the second round of the tournament held on the Danville Area Community College campus. Coleman is a big reason why they've made it this far.

"He's quiet, but once you get to know him, he's cool," Parkland guard JaMonte Williams said.

"He talks a lot once you get to know him," Parkland guard Jabryn Anderson added. "On the court, he's been a great factor for us, offense and defense. Off the court, he's been a great friend."

Coleman's stats — an average of 10.1 points and 5.4 rebounds in 30 starts — are one component of the Cobras' success.

The leadership and experience the 6-foot-7 Coleman brings are another.

"He's lived a full life," Parkland coach John Bowler said. "Not necessarily a full life in the real world, but a full life from a basketball perspective.

"I think he's able to kind of impart some of that wisdom on our guys who already were here, and then some of our transfers coming in that maybe didn't have that extra step he did."

Coleman's career began at Mahomet-Seymour, where he played under coaches Chad Benedict and Ryan Bosch and helped the Bulldogs to a Class 3A regional title in 2018.

His preps career included News-Gazette All-Area first team honors in 2020 and caught the attention of college coaches like Bowler, then an assistant at Milwaukee.

But Coleman's first and only season with the Panthers — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — was anything but normal.

"There were so many restrictions on campus at Milwaukee, (with) practice and gym times," Bowler said. "It's not necessarily anybody's fault. It just was what it was that I don't think he got that traditional freshman experience to grow and blossom and become the kind of guy who he is now."

He transferred to Bryant for the 2021-22 season before stepping away from the sport entirely after Bryant finished a 22-10 campaign that ended with a loss to Wright State in the First Four of the NCAA tournament.

Thus, Coleman was back home and without an outlet for his favorite sport, aside from pickup games at the ARC on the University of Illinois campus.

"I kind of regretted it," Coleman said. "Basketball is my life, and it felt like there was something missing whenever I wasn't playing. ... I really missed it, so I wanted to get back into it."

Upon hearing Coleman wasn't on a roster, Bowler tried to recruit Coleman to join the Cobras before his first season as Parkland's coach.

The jury is still out on whether Coleman missed his text or ignored it.

"I'm actually happy whether he didn't get it, didn't read it, or didn't respond, because I think that year of sitting out put so much perspective into him about enjoying the game, loving the game," Bowler said. "Kind of more being in the moment instead of thinking four or five years down the line."

His second attempt to bring Coleman aboard prior to the 2023-24 season was far more successful. And Coleman has found his groove again.

"Getting him here, having him be here in the summer, having him work with our guys, very, very rarely have I seen that much joy out of him, that love for the game," Bowler said. "I said to him after one of our losses, 'Who would have thought that it would've taken you this long to love the game again?'"

Coleman isn't the only reason why the Cobras are within four wins of their second national championship and first since 1986. Five players — Anderson, Coleman, Isaac Mapson, Tye Banks and Drew Lewis Jr. — average nine or more points per game.

"I just feel like every day, everyone's pushing each other to prepare for these big games coming up," Parkland forward Chandler Jackson said. "Especially the guys that aren't playing a lot. Everyone's pushing the starters, even the people that come off the bench."

Nor is Coleman unique in the sense that he'll have plenty of friends and family on hand at Mary Miller Gym this week. Of Parkland's 14 players, 11 are from Illinois and two more call Indiana home.

But those who have followed Coleman's journey won't have to travel far to watch him chase a national championship less than an hour from where it all began.

"It's going to be surreal," Coleman said. "This is something that you can only hope for whenever you're younger, and coming up and through high school, is playing for a national championship. I don't know how to explain it."