R-Jay Barsh wasn’t really sure what he was getting himself into.
Barsh, a Puyallup High graduate, won two Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges men’s basketball titles at Tacoma Community College – one as a player in 2002 and one as an assistant under former head coach Carl Howell in 2012.
With a blossoming résumé, Barsh was contacted two months after winning that final NWAACC title about the job as head coach at Southeastern University, an NAIA Division II school in Lakeland, Fla.
The Fire had never contended for the Sun Conference title, won a conference tournament playoff game or even been to the national playoffs. The school had no basketball tradition.
“At 29 ... I looked at it as a gamble,” Barsh said. “And I knew if it didn’t work out, I would be 33 and could start over.”
Well, it is working out just fine for the first-time coach. Southeastern completed its run in the NAIA tournament by losing in the national semifinals to perennial powerhouse Indiana Wesleyan, 98-77, on Monday in Point Lookout, Mo.
Along the way, the underdog yet determined Fire upended defending champion and top-ranked Cardinal Stritch (71-70) and No. 9 Davenport University (67-64) before losing to the No. 5 Wildcats in the final four.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Barsh on a layover at the airport in Houston on Tuesday. “You don’t lose 17 games (in 2012-13) and then go to the final four.”
Well, you kind of can.
Barsh, 31, credits Howell for a lot of the tactics he uses in preparing his team for specific opponents.
But Southeastern is a Christian college, and that fits Barsh’s personal profile. He is a gregarious, outgoing person who often takes to Twitter for daily devotionals, goes around to high schools as a motivational speaker and is very active in his church.
And he has developed a reputation for having an astute eye for basketball talent, and being a reliable closer as a recruiter.
He built his team around point guard Dwayne Johnson, who redshirted last season. Johnson returned as a senior and became an NAIA All-American.
Forward Brandon Moore – Barsh’s first recruit – came on this season as a sophomore paired with center Timothy Mitchell.
The Fire finished with a school-record 27 wins and will now have its first final four banner hanging from its rafters.
“Sometimes it is about timing,” Barsh said. “We are starting football here, so there is a lot of spotlight on athletics. And I am a young coach who loves being in the gym 24 hours a day.
“It has really paid off.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 email@example.com @ManyHatsMilles