Mecklen Davis is living in Montana, the place where his basketball travels planted him, where he now manages a group home for youths focusing on improving mental health.
The former Atascadero High standout and two-time Tribune County Player of the Year arrived at his new life through an athletic scholarship from Montana State, an NCAA Division I school in Bozeman, Mont., where he graduated in 2008.
Davis’ path — from Greyhound to Bobcat and now working professional — detoured through Cuesta College, the only community college in San Luis Obispo County. And he credits his experience with Cougars head coach Rusty Blair for getting him the scholarship that wasn’t there for a 6-foot-2 prep power forward coming out of high school.
In Blair’s 18 years with the school, Cuesta boasts 21 local players who have received scholarships to four-year universities.
But since Blair landed Davis in 2004, turning him from post player to potent point guard, the number of Tribune all-county basketball players at Cuesta has dwindled. Blair says he’s just out to make sure that top locals know they have choices.
Fewer of the best, it seems, are choosing Blair and the Cougars.
In a convoluted murk of cause and effect, recent top players are going elsewhere to further their careers, and Cuesta’s roster slots are now largely being filled by international standouts. Bleacher seats are going unfilled. Philosophies are being tested.
“Somehow,” Davis said, “Cuesta seems to have gotten a bad rap.”
LOCALS LOOK ELSEWHERE
The names and numbers speak for themselves.
If not for former Templeton High standout Seth Koenig’s return to the court this past season after he spent three years away from basketball to become a firefighter, the Cougars would have been without a Tribune all-county performer for two straight years.
By contrast, two of the past four Tribune County Players of the Year in baseball are currently playing at Cuesta, along with five other former all-county honorees.
Since two-time County Player of the Year Derrick Jasper went to Kentucky in 2006, every county MVP has chosen comparable alternatives to Cuesta.
Nipomo’s Dominique Saunders went to a scholarship junior college in Arizona in 2007. Morro Bay’s Dylan Royer chose to walk on at Cal Poly in 2008 and has seen little playing time. San Luis Obispo’s Julian Demalleville went to another California community college — Monterey Peninsula — in 2009.
Blair said he identified each one as his top target in their respective seasons.
“It’s hard to get a scholarship from this area. It’s not known for basketball, and there’s not a lot of talent,” said Demalleville, who said he worked hard to market himself to four-year schools but ultimately realized his best path was to go to junior college.
“It came down to the coach and the situation,” he said. “I chose Monterey because I liked the coach, and I liked the system.”
Other top players, such as Atascadero’s Danny Thomas, Templeton’s Michael Hattar and Mission Prep’s Robbie Souza, went to scholarship junior colleges out of state instead of playing in front of friends and family at Cuesta.
Paso Robles’ Gabe Barraza and Atascadero’s Andrew McMillan picked Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria over Cuesta.
Big men Shane Kennedy of San Luis Obispo and Jerry Casey of Mission Prep, and Royals sharpshooter Mitch Woolpert, walked on at four-year schools. Former Paso Robles center David Cone went the NAIA route.
There are still more who might have played at Cuesta, such as Mission Prep’s Scott Williams and Andrew Richardson, and San Luis Obispo’s Victor Torres, who tried out for the Cougars before giving up the game.
The mass exodus of local talent, all within the past five years, has led to a new phenomenon at Cuesta.
“From my perspective, I had to go international because I couldn’t get the locals,” Blair said. “I have to put a team on the floor. It’s my reaction to not getting locals to come here.”
INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF BASKETBALL
Cuesta arguably hasn’t suffered on the court from the dearth of local talent. The Cougars won the Western State Conference Northern Division title each of the past two seasons and had its best record and postseason success since 1998 this past season.
Concurrently, the number of international basketball players at Cuesta has skyrocketed. Four of the Cougars’ top six contributors this past season came from Europe. And the season before that, all five Cuesta starters came from overseas.
For four years running, Cuesta team MVPs have been from Belgium, Panama, Luxembourg and Spain.
Of those four recent international team MVPs, three signed with NCAA Division I schools: Kristof Ongenaet (Syracuse), Josimar Ayarza (Southern Mississippi) and Roger Guardia (Cal State Fullerton).
In the 1990s, those scholarships went to local Cuesta players like Morro Bay’s Danny Furlong (Hawaii), Arroyo Grande’s Matt Andrews (Cal State Northridge) and San Luis Obispo’s Brian Dignan (BYU).
The international connections have seemed to come naturally for Blair, a 1968 graduate of San Luis Obispo High who went on to become a three-year starter at Oregon and later a successful player and coach in Europe.
Blair spent the better part of the 1980s in Holland and Belgium playing and coaching at some of the highest European levels before returning to San Luis Obispo to take over the Cougars in 1992.
The experience has always seemed to pay off with a player or two from overseas landing at Cuesta — such as Belgian Stijn Dondt, who gained distinction after leaving Cuesta in the early 2000s for hitting a game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer for Boston University in the America East Conference Tournament.
The 2008-09 season, however, was the first time Blair’s European connections resulted in fielding a team made up almost entirely of international players. The more publicity those players gain, the more Cuesta’s reputation grows outside the country.
THE JOB COMES WITH UNCERTAINTY
But even the international ground is shaky for Blair. With the California community college system being a non-scholarship one, he’s not allowed to offer financial support to any of his recruits.
Under California rules, international students are responsible for every penny of their raised tuition rates, books, room and board.
Blair estimates the total expense for one of his European players to be close to $20,000 a year. The cost is one reason why several international players from the 2008 team did not return for their sophomore seasons in 2009.
He said only one international player is committed to joining the team next season, a year in which the Cougars will have lost every major contributor from their conference title team.
If that seems like more reason for Blair to put out feelers in the local market, it hasn’t happened yet. It appears unlikely that many of this year’s top San Luis Obispo County products will play at Cuesta.
Heading to Cal State Northridge, Paso Robles High standout Lonnie Watson is the only local player to land a Division I scholarship.
Arroyo Grande point guard Michael Escobedo accepted a scholarship from MidAmerica Nazarene, a traditional NAIA power in Olathe, Kan.
“I just wanted to try something different and experience a new part of the world,” Escobedo said. “I just wanted to be on my own a little bit and do my own thing.”
Leaving home for college is commonplace for many students from the Central Coast and beyond.
One local possibility to play at Cuesta from this year’s class might be Atascadero shooting guard Matt O’Connell, who earned both all-league and all-county second-team honors. A 6-2, 170-pound sharpshooter, O’Connell was second in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals for the Greyhounds, who made a deep playoff run this past season.
O’Connell intends to try out for the Cougars, Atascadero coach Jerry Tamelier said.
“Cuesta provides an opportunity for kids to go and try to play at the next level,” Tamelier said. “That door has always been open.
“It’s highly competitive. For kids who want to continue to play, who want to compete at that level and gain that kind of recognition, the opportunity is there.”
In the case of Escobedo, however, he said he never personally heard from Blair. Meanwhile, Hancock and Ventura College were in constant contact with him.
BLAIR IS CONTENT TO WAIT
Blair says he won’t directly contact players during the season.
Content to wait until both his and the high school season has ended, Blair lost out on locals like Escobedo, Cone and Hattar, who all made college decisions after receiving attention from other coaches before Cuesta tried to enter the mix. Juggling his Cougars coaching duties with his full-time position teaching grade school in Los Osos and Morro Bay, Blair has adopted a sort of limited approach to how much attention he gives any recruit.
“I won’t lie and tell you that it’s a lot because it’s not,” Blair said. “I tell them ‘We’re interested in you coming, and can I come to your home and give you a presentation on the school?’
“If that’s not enough and I have to keep calling every day, that’s kind of not my M.O. I’m not going to beg a person to come.”
And beyond those top local recruits — those he knows will be talented enough to make an immediate impact — Blair, opposed to lowering his standards, won’t chase players.
He’ll welcome anyone with enough mental and physical fortitude to go through his intense fall conditioning program. They have as much chance to make the team as anyone else.
But that kind of hands-off philosophy is unrealistic to some.
“Rusty is valued, but he has to be a people person, and he has to put local boys in those seats,” said local club coach Mark Williams, who’s had two basketball playing sons graduate from Mission Prep. “The community would like that.”
Davis, the last local to turn a Cuesta career into a Division I scholarship, said Blair was the first coach that cared about him as an individual instead of a tool to make the team better.
Having finished his college career, Davis sees things from both sides: From the high school player yearning to move out and maximize his opportunities and from the junior college coach looking to field the best team possible.
Wizened by the winding route that led him to Montana, Davis has also learned a key lesson.
“The thing is, in this life, everybody’s got to learn to compromise,” Davis said.