2022-2023 Basketball

Maryland Eastern Shore getting things turned around under Crafton

Jason Crafton’s Hawks of Maryland Eastern Shore are on a mission to erase fifty years of ineptitude. They meet top seed Howard in Friday’s MEAC men’s semifinals.

Five winning seasons in 50 years as an NCAA Div. I basketball program, that’s the record Mid Eastern Athletic Conference member Maryland-Eastern Shore carried in men’s basketball when head coach Jason Crafton took over in 2019. 

That lack of a winning culture has been hard to overcome. But Crafton and his 2022-23 team are on the verge of turning that around. This season, his senior-laden team posted a 17-12 regular season record with a 9-5 mark in MEAC play. His Hawks tied with Norfolk State for third place in the regular season and entered Thursday’s quarterfinal tournament game seeded fourth.

Tha’s quite an improvement over last year’s 11-16 mark and 6-8 record in the MEAC. It’s a near complete turnaround from the 5-27, 4-20 mark during the 2019-20 season when Crafton took over. Between those seasons, the Hawks sat out the 2020-21 season because of the COVID-19 virus.

Seniors lead Maryland Eastern Shore as it faces top seed Howard

“It’s been a long road,” Crafton said after his Maryland Eastern Shore team posted an 80-64 win over fifth-seed Morgan State in Thursday’s first quarterfinal game to advance to Friday’s semifinal. They will meet top seed Howard (20-12, 11-3 MEAC) at 6 p.m. Friday. Graduate seniors Zion Styles with 19 points and Nathaniel Pollard Jr. with 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds led four Hawks that scored in double digits. The two vets accompanied Crafton in the postgame interview.

The Hawks will face a Howard team that they split games with this season. UMES won at home on Jan. 9, 82-73. The Bison won on their home floor 78-69 on Feb. 13.

“Since I took this thing over, these guys (Styles and Pollard) have been with me three years. Three others have been with me all four years. We’ve got a dynamic group of guys that have persevered, eight seniors (actually four grad seniors and four seniors).”

Maryland-Eastern Shore’s Zion Styles defends Morgan State freshman Rob Lawson in the Hawks’ 80-64 quarterfinal MEAC Tournament win. UMES forced 23 turnovers in the win.

Pollard (2nd team) and Styles (3rd team) were all-MEAC selections.

“We’ve done it the old-fashioned way – retaining guys, get guys better and having unbelievable chemistry. We’re tight, we have veteran leadership and we’re united.”

The main thing in the turnaround

“The most difficult job in getting things turned around is that there was no winning tradition,” Crafton said, “not a lot of reference points. We’re on a mission to be the first team in the history of the Div. I program to go to the Div. I (NCAA) tournament. We’re creating everything as we go. So the most difficult thing has been just fighting the lack of culture that’s been here and trying to create a culture on the fly.  You do that by bringing in the right people.

“We had a season taken, couldn’t practice, couldn’t go five-on-five. But we came back with an edge. We did not just want to get here. We want win it and change the culture.”

The last time the Hawks made the MEAC finals was 1999 when they lost to Florida A&M. The only MEAC title for UMES was in 1974.

“It’s not an easy situation,” Crafton added. “It’s not easy to win at Maryland Eastern Shore. It hasn’t been for a lot of people that’s why there’s only been five winning seasons in the last 50 years.

“Our program has been rated dead last in the country in multiple years in multiple categories. Getting this program out of the first round is a huge accomplishment. But we’re not done yet.”

Maryland Eastern Shore getting things turned around under Crafton
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