TERRE HAUTE — Go ahead. Pick your favorite sports underdogs, real or cinematic.
The 1969 Mets. Rocky Balboa. The Hickory Huskers.
They can’t hang with Wendell Mardis. It’s not even close.
Mardis recently signed a national letter-of-intent and accepted a scholarship to play basketball for Alabama State University, a Division I school in Marion, Ala.
The 2004 Terre Haute North graduate culminated an odyssey that has taken him to a one-year layoff from school and two different colleges over the past three years, defying odds that no Las Vegas bookmaker would even touch.
“I knew I was going to end up playing if I ever got a chance,” Mardis said Saturday. “I was always hearing I wasn’t big enough, and I just kept that in my head. I got great support from my family and my uncle [Mel Burks] and kept working really hard to get better. All I needed was the opportunity.”
Mardis had a health problem in his middle school years that prevented him from achieving normal height, but has since grown to 6-feet, 166 pounds after that problem cleared up and is living proof that no one should ever give up on a dream.
“I was just looking at some pictures the other day,” North Coach Jim Jones said Saturday. “He was just a small, little guy when he first got here … it’s amazing the progress he’s made. He just battled to get better, and he willed himself to be a great basketball player.”
Jones feels that his overall game has constantly improved, but that Mardis has not yet reached his full basketball potential.
“He’s got great basketball intelligence,” Jones said. “He can handle it and he can shoot it. His work ethic is unreal — he literally loves the game. As he continues to get bigger and stronger he’ll continue to improve, and you never know how far he can go.”
Mardis spent the year after graduation working out with several local standouts such as his cousin, Indiana University’s Armon Bassett, and former North standout Andre Dickson (now at Lindenwood University).
“I had planned to go to prep school after high school, but it didn’t work out the way I wanted so I just worked on my game constantly,” Mardis said. “Even though I didn’t go to school, I actually think that playing against older and better players has helped me in the long run.”
Mardis played his freshman season at Southeastern Illinois College in the 2005-2006 school year and had success on a 26-8 team that lost in the regional finals, but was unable to prove his worth to the coaching staff.
“I had to prove some people wrong down there, too,” Mardis said. “Coach was not looking to play me, and things were not the way I envisioned them there.”
Mardis had originally thought about going to Illinois Central College, and transferred there for the 2006-2007 school year. He rejoined two of his childhood friends at ICC in former South standouts Travis and Robert Davis.
Despite coming off the bench as the team’s backup point guard, Mardis averaged 10.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 45 percent on 3-pointers.
Many athletes would be insulted to have a non-starting role despite such success, but Mardis took the assignment in stride.
“I didn’t even start in high school,” he recalled, although he was still an all-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference first-team performer in his senior year. “Coach [Tony] Wysinger came to me and asked me if it was important to me to start, and I told him he’s the coach and to do what he had to do to win.”
Illinois Central went 29-4 this season, but Mardis’ team again lost in the regional finals. He considered a long list of schools including Idaho State, Nebraska, St. Louis, Gardner-Webb, Pacific and Long Beach State before deciding upon Alabama State, a member of the Southwest Athletic Conference.
“I liked the coaches there the best,” Mardis said. “They feel I can come in and make an immediate impact as a player. They make me feel that life after basketball is important as well.
“Basketball isn’t going to last forever, and that really stood out to me.”
Mardis will major in business management and minor in real estate.
As for basketball, Mardis is among five new players the Hornets are bringing in to help improve a 10-20 team.
Initially, he may wind up coming off the bench, but that’s OK. He’s been there before.
And it’s worked out pretty well.
• The Davis brothers – Mardis reports that Travis Davis is recovered from surgery last summer that sidelined him from all of the past season. He will have one year left at ICC. Robert Davis has given a verbal commitment to Brescia College, an NAIA school in Owensboro, Ky., to play next winter.
• Other recruiting news — Eric Hardin of North Central will continue his tennis career at Lake Land College, one of the nation’s top junior college programs. Hardin was a key doubles player this season for the sectional runnerup T-Birds.
Sullivan point guard Derrick DeMoss will take his ballhandling talents to Danville Area Community College next year.
Standout Riverton Parke running back Josh Mager will play for Anderson University next year.
• Jones steps down — Rockville native Steve Jones has resigned his position as the men’s and women’s golf coach at Butler University in order to pursue expanded opportunities in golf instruction. Jones had served as the women’s golf coach at Butler since 2003-04 and as combined men’s and women’s coach for the Bulldogs since 2004-05, while maintaining a career as a golf teaching professional.
Jones guided the Butler women’s golf team to a third consecutive Horizon League Championship this spring, and he was named Horizon League Women’s Golf Coach of the Year for the third straight season. He was named the League’s Co-Coach of the Year in 2004. The Butler men’s team placed fifth at this year’s league championship.
• Campbell in Hall of Fame — Matt Campbell of White River Valley, a three-time high school state pole vault champ, has been named to the Indiana Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame.
Campbell won titles in 1999 (15-feet-3), 2000 (16-3) and 2001 (16-9). He also placed second as a freshman in 1998. He went on to the junior college level where he was the 2002 Junior College National Champion at Neosha Junior College in Kansas with a vault of 17-1. He was the NCAA Division II National Champion at Missouri Southern in 2005 with a vault of 17-3.
Joey Bennett is a former Tribune-Star sports reporter and copy editor who now teaches at North Central Jr.-Sr. High School in Farmersburg. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his Web site listing all known area athletes competing in college can be found at www.tribstarcollegereport.com.
Wabash Valley golf/tennis collegiate players
Jon Matthews (Monmouth/Fr.) – Shot a 113-109—222 to tie for 50th place in the Scot-Fire Invitational.
Daniel Williams (Rose-Hulman/Jr.) – Placed 12th in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championships with a 327.
Former area residents
Kristi Piepenbrink (Indianapolis/So.) – Averaged 76.8 strokes per match this year and shot a 77-79-75—231 in NCAA Regional to tie for 12th place.
Drew Dunkerly (Southern Indiana/So.) – Tied for 34th in Wisconsin-Parkside Invitational with 77-75—152.
Chris Taylor (Vincennes/Fr.) – Placed fifth in Region 12 tournament to earn all-Region honors with a 236.
Ty Comerford (Eastern Illinois/Sr.) – Finished career by shooting a 240 to tie for 33rd place in the Ohio Valley Championships.
Jared Freeman (Air Force/Jr.) – Was fifth on team and 94th overall with an 80-80-74—234 in the Ping Cougar Classic.
Steve Jones (Butler head coach) – Coached men’s team to a fifth-place finish in the Horizon League Championships. Resigned following season.
Justin Ridge (Frankliln/Fr.) – Was medalist in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference meet with a 297 and also named Most Valuable Player.
Terre Haute North
Gennifer Marrs (Indiana/Sr.) — Tied for 87th by shooting an 86-86—172 in the IU Invitational.
Matt Payne (Franklin/Fr.) — Placed fourth on team in HCAC Championships with a 327.
Matt Sherertz (Western Kentucky/So.) — Most recent outing was in FirstEnergy Intercollegiates, placing tied for 85th with 75-88-77—240.
Terre Haute South
Kelli Holloway (IUPUI/Jr.) — Placed 27th in Mid-Continent Conference Championships with 89-83-89—261.
Charles Kluesner (Oakland/Sr.) — Ended career by tying for 24th place in Mid-Continent Conference Championships with a 79-78-74—231.
Terre Haute Wiley
Ken Piepenbrink (Indianapolis head coach) — Coached Greyhounds to fifth-place finish in Division II East Regional.
Devon Klutey (Marian/Fr.) — Listed on roster, did not compete in meet this spring.
Trace Hassler (DePauw/Jr.) – Did not participate in any matches this spring.
Julie Hopkins (Rose-Hulman/Fr.) – Had 11-7 record at No. 2 singles.
Terre Haute North
Scott Conner (DePauw/Fr.) – Did not participate in any matches this spring.
Sean Jastillano (Hanover/So.) – Did not participate in any matches this spring.
Katie Fleschner (Hanover/So.) – Team only participates in fall season.
Blake Douglas (Indiana State/Fr.) – Played in five singles matches and one doubles match this spring; won first set in match against Creighton and second set was not finished.
Andrew Gregory (Olivet Nazarene/So) – Team only participates in fall season.
Dan Hopkins (Rose-Hulman head coach) – Coached women to school-record 13-8 season, men to 11-9 record.
Katie Clagg (Southern Indiana/Fr.) – Had 7-15 singles record this spring.
Terre Haute South
Danny LaPlante (Rose-Hulman/Sr.) – Had 6-16 singles record and 9-11 doubles record.
White River Valley
Mandie Gehring (Rose-Hulman Jr.) – Had 4-0 singles record this spring.