It’s a different scene, a different atmosphere. Almost everything is different for Austin Doliboa.
What hasn’t changed is Doliboa himself. He’s still smiling, working hard and savoring his time as a basketball player.
Such is life these days for the 2015 Franklin High School graduate, now a junior member of the Earlham College men’s team.
LOOKING BACK AT 2015
“It’s great to be here,” Doliboa said Thursday afternoon at Earlham’s Athletics and Wellness Center. “The guys here are great guys. Great character. They’ve really taken me in. I’ve felt just like a brother to them already halfway through the season.”
The 6-foot-5 guard took a direct path to NCAA Division III basketball out of Franklin, but an indirect path to get here, where fourth-year Quakers coach Jason Polykoff is trying to build a winner after starting with essentially nothing.
Doliboa played for Bill Brown at Wittenberg as a freshman. He will tell you that “played” is a generous term, being that he totaled seven minutes of action, scored 2 points and grabbed three rebounds.
He chose to skip his sophomore season after working with the Tigers and new coach Matt Croci in the preseason. Doliboa’s desire to keep playing eventually prompted him to transfer to Earlham, which had recruited him out of high school.
The Quakers haven’t been great on the court — they’re 3-11 overall and 1-6 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference heading into Saturday’s road contest against Franklin (Ind.) — but Doliboa is averaging 11.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game while shooting 51.5 percent from the floor and 77.1 percent from the line.
“I do feel we’re underachieving a little bit record-wise, but if we continue to get guys like Austin who have the right mentality and can play, we’re going to be OK,” Polykoff said. “We were really hoping he’d come as a freshman, but we’re ecstatic he’s here now.”
Taking the wrong road
The decision to attend Wittenberg, a frequent player at the national level in Division III, seemed like a good one for Doliboa.
He scored 12.8 points per game and shot 62.6 percent from the field during his senior year at Franklin. It was a memorable campaign headlined by Luke Kennard, who went on to play at Duke University and is now in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons.
Doliboa thought he could contribute right away at Wittenberg. But Brown didn’t call his name very often.
“We had some veterans on the team, but I still thought I could fit in,” Doliboa said. “He just didn’t see me there.”
Brown stepped down after the season, and Croci replaced him. Doliboa could see that Wittenberg wasn’t really the place for him.
“He brought in like 10-plus freshmen. I could tell he was looking to build his new program and bring in the guys that he wanted, which is understandable,” Doliboa said. “I’d gotten moved to power forward/center, and that’s not really my position. I just think we came to an equilibrium that I wasn’t really in his plans and I needed to go somewhere else, so I removed myself before the first game to keep eligibility.”
He worked on his game and started looking for another program while finishing his sophomore year in the classroom at Wittenberg. And Earlham was happy to hear that he was available.
Doliboa recalled attending an open gym at Earlham before choosing Wittenberg.
“Coach Polykoff had just gotten here. He was rebuilding the team and didn’t have many guys,” Doliboa said. “When I came to the open gym, the character of the guys I just didn’t like so much, so I chose Wittenberg.
“When I came back for the visit here after I got off the Wittenberg team, it was a totally different team. New guys. Great character. I loved them all. That made me want to come here.”
He missed two games early this season to be with his grandfather, who underwent surgery in Florida, but he’s moved into the starting lineup and has been in the first five the last seven games.
Doliboa is a big wing on this team. His combination of size and guard skills is huge in the HCAC.
“He’s an interesting matchup for other teams,” Polykoff said. “He’s one of those players that’s unique to our level.”
The Earlham coach believes Doliboa can be an all-conference player here. He’s making an impact in multiple ways.
“All the stuff he does off the court has been really valuable for our team, just the leadership and the energy that he brings,” Polykoff said. “He has a certain spirit that you don’t see a lot out of guys where he’s excited for practice. We talk about off-drill energy, and he brings it. He’s somebody that we’ve needed.”
The Quakers are improving, even if the record doesn’t show it. Their last winning season came in 2002-03, and Earlham is 78-292 since that year. But the team is averaging nearly 80 points per game in 2017-18 against a beefed-up schedule.
“We’ve got to keep reminding our guys how we’re getting better,” Polykoff said. “There were three players on the team when I got here, and two of them played football. There’s starting at the bottom, and there’s starting from scratch. We felt like we started from scratch.”
Playing for each other
College basketball has forced Doliboa to change his mentality when it comes to things out of his control.
At Franklin, where the Wildcats were 26-2 and lost in the Division II regional finals his senior year, Doliboa played in sold-out gyms and arenas with frenzied crowds.
At Earlham’s last home game, the attendance was 200.
“In high school, you take that for granted sometimes,” Doliboa said of the huge crowds that followed the Wildcats. “It’s humbling. There’s no 2,000 people in there to watch you now. Your friends and family might be there, but that’s it.
“You play for each other now, and I really like that. Not that we didn’t at Franklin — we definitely played for each other — but here at Earlham, most of the time that’s all we’ve got is who’s on the bench.
“You’ve got to stay focused on the true game. I think that’s what’s good about Division III. You learn to love the game for the game and not everything around it.”
Losing is not something he’s accustomed to. Franklin’s varsity lost 10 games during his three years there.
Doliboa is confident Earlham will start turning the corner in the win column. The Quakers have just finished the toughest part of their schedule and have 11 regular-season games remaining.
“I wouldn’t call it tough to swallow because at Franklin I got a hard-nosed attitude, and I like the challenge,” Doliboa said. “It’s fun coming from the bottom and trying to build and create a great program.”
A time to remember
Franklin’s 2014-15 season won’t be forgotten in Southwest Ohio. Kennard was the unquestioned leader, averaging 38.1 points per game and completing a career that’s among the best in state history.
But there were four other senior starters on that team: Doliboa, Evan Crowe, Matt Thompson and Jake Riddell. Every Wildcat game that year had a rock-concert vibe.
“I definitely never thought my senior season I’d be signing autographs,” Doliboa said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, the greatest times of my life.”
He wasn’t a lifelong Wildcat, having transferred to Franklin after his freshman year at Madison. But the bond he developed with his teammates was special.
“How close we became in that short amount of time was unlike anything I know,” Doliboa said. “The way they all took me in, the coaches, friends, the school … I’ve been fortunate to have that happen to me twice now.
“Coach (Brian) Bales was a great coach. I don’t think I would be the player I am today without his coaching and others. Going to Franklin was a great move and helped build more than basketball. I gained endless character from that team, the small things, the things you take with you into the real world.
“I think we were so great because everybody accepted what they were supposed to do. We never tried to overcompensate and go out of our zones. We all knew what we were good at, and we did it.”
Franklin didn’t make it to state, suffering a 77-76 overtime loss to Dunbar in the regional final at the University of Dayton Arena. Doliboa described the atmosphere as “almost deafening.”
“I do wonder what would’ve happened if that game had turned out differently,” said Doliboa, who had 4 points and six rebounds that day. “It was definitely a dagger, but you can’t live your whole life looking back at your last high school game. It’s something you just have to move on from.”
An eye on the future
Doliboa said he feels like a freshman because this is the first season he’s played significantly since high school.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is play college basketball, whatever the level,” he said. “I want to be a part of something that’s bigger than me. I want to help this team become a winner.”
He’s majoring in global management — Doliboa said that’s an exotic liberal-arts term for a general business major — and is on track to graduate in the spring of 2019.
Because Doliboa didn’t play at Wittenberg last year, he could play at Earlham the next two years. He hasn’t decided if he’ll use all of his eligibility or simply graduate and move on next spring.
“I’m on the fence,” said Doliboa, who won’t turn 21 until March 25. “I want to see this program be successful. If my senior year doesn’t go how we want it, then I’ll definitely be back for another year.”
That decision is on the horizon. For now, Doliboa said he’s simply grateful to have found a home at Earlham.
“I’m happy. That’s what life is about to me,” he said. “The wins will come or they won’t, but at the end of the day, I’m going to be happy. I love the guys here. I love the coaches. I love the atmosphere. I love the school. And that’s what matters to me.”
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