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  • Writer's pictureTimothy LaDuca

Wesley Booker: Mayor Of Monticello

Wesley Booker’s first day of school at Lyon College was a bit different than he expected: he walked into the admissions office and withdrew from classes.

He was recruited to play basketball for Chad Tapp’s Fighting Scots, an NAIA team in Booker’s home state of Arkansas. When Tapp left to take over at Arkansas-Monticello on the day before classes started, Booker and his teammates had a tough situation.

Booker said it was an easy decision to play for Tapp at Lyon. He’d played basketball since he was 3 and always saw himself playing collegiately. Booker had the stats to back up his dream. He averaged 20 points per game in high school while winning all-conference honors as a freshman, sophomore, and junior. He was recruited by several teams during his junior year of high school at Mt. Vernon-Enola, his first offer coming from Division II Southern Arkansas, which plays in the Great American Conference, same as UAM.

Tapp recruited Booker to Lyon, where the Scots had recently won the program’s first conference championship in 38 years. Booker’s mother guided her son towards Lyon because of how well regarded the institution was academically. She reminded him that, if basketball does not work out professionally, it would be more beneficial to have a degree from Lyon than many other schools.

When Booker tore his ACL six games into his senior season and all but two schools withdrew offers, Booker decided to join Tapp at Lyon. On top of the school's academics, Booker liked what he saw from Tapp.

“Coach Tapp is an upfront guy,” Booker said. “He’s not going to lie to you or try to scam you. I could tell Coach was a guy I could always go to and he would always give an honest answer.”

Tapp proved he was not one to mince words after taking the job at UAM.

Despite bringing recent success to Lyon, Tapp saw the writing on the wall when the administration asked him to focus on enrollment more than excellence. Tapp felt pressured to get as many players as he could to Lyon, jeopardizing his team’s talent.

“You go into this job wanting to be a basketball coach, not an admission counselor,” Tapp said. Tapp cherished his time and opportunities at Lyon but when a colleague referred him to the UAM job, he knew it was time to move on.

He got the job in Monticello shortly after applying and right before classes started at UAM and Lyon.

While Tapp was excited about the history of success throughout UAM’s program and enjoyed how invested Chancellor Peggy Doss was in athletics, he still knew leaving just before classes started put his Lyon players in a tough position.

The Transition

Booker and his teammates had been on Lyon’s campus for a week when they found out Tapp was leaving. Around 8:30 a.m., as Booker stood in line for a freshman orientation ceremony and class picture, Tapp called him into his office and — as is his way — the two-time American Midwest Conference Coach of the Year was upfront.

“I’ll make this quick,” Tapp told Booker. “I got the job [at UAM] and I want you to come with me.”

Booker had a lot to think about … and little time to do it. Tapp needed to know who was coming to UAM by the end of the day.

Booker first needed to find out about UAM, fully unaware Monticello had a school.

He then texted his mom: “I don’t know what to do. I’m freaking out.”

Booker mistakenly thought his mother already found out the news and left her hanging with that desperate text. He was unable to check his phone and see her frantic text messages while in the freshman orientation ceremony.

“I apologized to her for that,” Booker said. “She thought something was really wrong.”

Once he assured his worried mother that he was not in danger and broke the news to her, he also consulted his grandparents and some teammates. They were all supportive of the move.

Booker also needed to weigh his options. He committed to Lyon in order to fulfill his childhood dream of playing college basketball and work with Tapp, but also to get a good degree.

Booker considered his opportunities on the court at Lyon and 184 miles south at UAM. He felt he could earn a spot on the Lyon squad without Tapp around. But with a new coach coming in after class began, he figured he and the team would get off to a slow start. If he followed Tapp to UAM, he would be playing in the NCAA instead of the NAIA and for a Division II squad.

Booker was unfazed about the level because he was recruited to other schools in UAM’s conference. Now he had an opportunity to show those schools what they were missing out on after they dropped him following his ACL injury.

“I’m very happy with my decision. I love Monticello,” Booker said.

Seven other Lyon players joined Tapp and Booker. Four played for Tapp last season while the other four were an even mix of freshman and junior college recruits.

Starting at Monticello

Booker, Tapp and the team were a bit behind schedule as they rolled into Monticello as classes began. Tapp admitted he usually has his roster together by the spring … or at least by summer. But by the time he took the UAM job it was mid-August and Tapp only had nine players, eight from Lyon and one holdover from UAM’s team the year before who had played just seven minutes for the Boll Weevils in 2020-21.

“It has been like drinking from a fire hydrant the last four months,” Tapp quipped.

Tapp and his staff added four transfers after arriving in Monticello: Josh Williams from NAIA Cumberlands, Richard Feagin from D-II Miles, Jabari Sweet from D-II Hawai’i-Hilo and Jesse White from Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Tapp had his guys in place and Booker looked around and saw players from all around the college basketball landscape. Only two had played Division II hoops before, the rest were from JCs, NAIA schools, or fresh out of high school. In Booker’s case, he had not played an official game of hoops for almost a year.

When the preseason poll rolled around for the Great American Conference, Booker and the Boll Weevils ranked dead last. Tapp told his team that he had heard rumblings all preseason that the rest of the league was counting them out … and already considering the Boll Weevils as two wins to their tally.

Even though Booker says his team feels like underdogs, he also believes his team is one of the most talented in the conference.

When Nov. 13 arrived, the Boll Weevils finally had a chance to prove it, beating Lincoln University of Missouri by six points. Booker did not play in the first game of the year but subbed in two minutes into the second half against none other than the reigning Division II National Champion Northwest Missouri State.

Tapp said he didn’t play Booker in the first game because he was worried he was not up to speed after his injury.

But, already down 18 to the champs, he decided to get Booker some run. Booker scored four points and tallied a block during his first game in over a year. While Booker was not nervous out on the court, he said afterward: “Man, I just played against the National Champions. After the game, the more I thought of it, I was like, ‘Dang that was crazy.’”

Booker then came off the bench the next three contests, averaged 7.6 points a night, and eventually earned a starting role.

“He’s a really bright kid,” Tapp said. “His role is only going to get bigger.”

Becoming The Mayor

While Booker is successfully navigating his first collegiate season, he also has to figure out college life as a student. Booker knew he would be as nervous as any typical freshman heading into the first day of class, but he was not a normal freshman. At first, he kept his head down and snuck in and out of class.

“This is really awkward,” he thought to himself while in class following his transfer in while all the other students had already started. Booker has become more comfortable in class and is also finding himself a role in a new community.

“He’s a tremendous kid,” Tapp said. “We joke that he’s the Mayor of Monticello.”

Booker figures he earned that gracious moniker by going to church each Sunday and meeting as many people as he can.

“I see myself as a decently positive person,” Booker said.

He uses his positivity at church where a young, college student always willing to lend a hand is welcomed by all. In a small town like Monticello, he’s been something of a basketball diplomat.

“We’ve had great crowds so far,” Booker said. “It helps that we’re winning.”

And they certainly are winning. The Boll Weevils are 7-3 overall and 3-1 in conference play and so those easy wins some might have expected have yet to materialize.

Booker is proud of his team as they grab attention around the conference, proving there are a lot of great basketball players out there and you do not have to be on scholarship at a high level to play competitive games.

Booker and the amalgamation of NAIA, JC and transfers are a very interesting case study on what happens when you have a good group of players under a motivated, innovative coach.

“We are really appreciative of those guys,” Tapp said.

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