His freshman year of college all but wrapped up, Alex Engel was ready to come home to Los Osos for the summer.
The day before school was out at Columbia College a junior college near Sonora where the former Morro Bay High basketball player had just spent a redshirt season Engels coach called him up saying it might not be a good idea to come back in the fall.
There wouldnt be a roster spot waiting.
I think when it first happened, when I came back from Columbia, I was kind of in scramble mode, said Engel, whod always dreamed of playing the NBA and only tempered that hope to playing college basketball when he stopped growing. I was like, What am I going to do now?
There werent many lines forming for a 5-foot-10 guard with little game experience and quickness hampered by a history of ankle and back injuries.
Engel hadnt played an official game since he was with the Pirates, and even then he was a backup combo guard and complement to star teammate Dylan Royer.
But four years after that deflating conversation with his first college coach, Engel was running the point for another school, facing off against Royer and Cal Poly in a Division I gymnasium in front of his hometown fans.
Determined to have a college career, Engel persevered through two seasons coming off the bench at nearby Cuesta College and parlayed a by-chance tryout at Menlo College into a spot on the NAIA mens basketball team at the Silicon Valley business school, leveraging his academic success into scholarship money that paid for most of his education.
Alex, he did it. He had that initiative, Morro Bay boys basketball coach Dave Yamate said. When he came back from Columbia, he could have just shut it down. That would have stopped a lot of kids. A lot of it was him. He had the initiative and the drive to keep playing, and that was it. Im so proud of him, and that would have been if he scored one point or 1,000.
Engel started 17 of the 26 games he played as a senior at Menlo, averaging 17.8 minutes per game and ranking fifth on the team in scoring (5.0 points per game). His junior year, Engels 45.5 percent from 3-point range was the best on the team.
Honored as an NAIA Scholar Athlete earlier this week, Engel shot 83.7 percent from the free-throw line this season, one of the highest marks in program history.
His crowning achievement might be a late-season game against Pacific Union College where he scored a career-high 19 points.
Despite going down as a 91-58 loss, the December game at Cal Poly ranks high as well. Engel scored nine points, including a 3-pointer, and dished out three assists going head to head against Royer, a close friend who hes played alongside since the two were in early grade school.
It was great to be able to come home, Engel said. I put in all this work and nobody really knew about it, and then I came home and was able to show what Id been doing.
What a lot of people dont realize is that the level of play in those NAIAs and DII or whatever, its not as high as DI level, but its still a high level.
To Engel, Yamate and Cuesta head coach Rusty Blair, Engels perseverance is proof that you dont have to be a star player to have a worthwhile college basketball career.
Engel was neither recruited coming out of Morro Bay nor after his two years at Cuesta, but a self-made player will find that there are opportunities at the lower levels of college basketball not featured on March Madness brackets.
The NCAA Division II and NAIA levels both have their own lesser-known championship tournaments and each is allowed to offer full athletic scholarships.
But because of their lack of exposure, many of the lower-level schools are unknown to high school players.
There are 345 Division I teams in 32 major conferences. There are more than 500 combined colleges that compete in Division II and NAIA, but they are often at smaller campuses with much smaller enrollments.
The NAIA-Division II route isnt the glamour route, Blair said, but youre going to get your education paid out.
We only see one thing on TV, in the newspapers, and thats Division I. So, from that standpoint, nobody knows those schools, knows the names of those schools. Theyre not the glamour places to go, but not everyone can play Division I.
Engel hardly played for Cuesta, especially during his first season.
He was slotted behind six other Cougars players his sophomore season, all six of whom went on to either earn a scholarship to a four-year school or play professionally in Europe, Blair said.
But because of his work ethic and positive attitude, Engel was made a team captain. When injuries hit at a crucial stage late in the season, Engel stepped in to score 11 points in his first collegiate start, hitting three of six 3-pointers in a then career-high 19 minutes.
When the Cuesta season ended, Engel played in showcase events designed to get unknown players exposure to four-year coaches.
None of the events secured him a spot for the following season until he was invited to go with former Morro Bay teammate Zach Wheeler, who was trying out for Menlo.
Though Wheeler did not make the team, if not for him bringing Engel along and the encouragement of Engels dad, Rudy, to accept the ride, Engels career might have ended that summer.
For Yamate, who won a junior college state title playing alongside former Chicago Bulls forward Corey Blount at Santa Ana College and who went on to earn a scholarship at NAIA Eastern Oregon during his playing days, seeing Engel become his first Morro Bay player to play four years of college basketball brings immeasurable joy.
He really is a great example of the journey, Yamate said. It hasnt all been easy for him. If you want to play, theres going to be someplace for you to play if you play high school and you have a work ethic and youre a team player.