Columbus State Community College men's basketball coach Ed Thompson has talked with many central Ohio players who ultimately decided they'd like to play collegiately outside of the area or out of state.

Some of those players later called Thompson to ask about playing for him.

When that occurs in the future, he could tell them about what they've been missing.

Now in his fourth season as head coach after spending one season as an assistant, Thompson twice has guided Columbus State to the National Junior College Athletic Association national tournament, including this season.

The Cougars finished 20-10 after beating Montgomery College 97-87 on March 17 in the third-place game of the eight-team NJCAA Division III national tournament in Loch Sheldrake, New York.

Columbus State opened the three-day tournament March 15 with a 91-76 victory over Herkimer College in a quarterfinal before losing to Brookdale Community College 109-79 in a semifinal March 16. Brookdale beat Nassau Community College 70-57 in the championship game March 17.

"Really, it's starting to build," Thompson said. "We're trying to get more of the Columbus kids to not overlook it. A lot of kids want to say, 'Hey, I want to go out of town and leave,' and 90 percent of those kids contact me ... trying to come back.

"We're really trying to build this program up and let them know we can save you some money and stay at home, and you can still go to the next level from Columbus State."

Columbus State qualified for the 16-team NJCAA Division II national tournament in 2016, reaching the semifinal consolation round held in Danville, Illinois, before finishing 25-8.

The Cougars were reclassified to NJCAA Division III for the 2016-17 season and, despite having just one holdover from the 2016 team in Columbus South graduate Chris Byrd, again qualified for the national tournament this season.

Byrd, a 6-foot-2 sophomore guard, had a contributing role with Columbus State in 2016 but did not play last season. He returned this season, and he and Mansfield Senior graduate Mario Young both made first-team all-Ohio Community College Athletic Conference. Young averaged 18.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists, and Byrd averaged 16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

"(What's) special about this team is us coming together so quickly," said Byrd, who scored 27 points against Montgomery College. "Meeting new friends, it's hard at the beginning, but we just jelled. We've got maybe a little more height this year, but our pace is non-stop."

That tempo, according to both Thompson and Byrd, comes from the team's work ethic.

"We come in at 5:30 a.m. and go (for two hours)," Byrd said. "You feel better about yourself. You get to see the sunrise in the morning."

Other key players for the Cougars this season included Worthington Kilbourne graduate Matthew Gierhart, a 6-5 sophomore forward who averaged 13.3 points and 7.5 rebounds and made second-team all-OCCAC, and Pickerington Central graduate Anthony Butler, a 6-5 freshman forward who averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds.

Ronald Fairrow, a 6-5 freshman forward and Pickerington North graduate who averaged 3.3 points, joined Gierhart and Butler as the team's tallest players.

"It's exciting to have a chance to win a national championship for our school," said Gierhart, who scored 18 points against Herkimer. "We've lost some players, but a few guys came back and we've been able to pull it together."

While Thompson joins Young as a Mansfield native, assistant coach Kyrem Massey is an Eastmoor graduate who went on to play for Kent State.

Of the 11 players on the roster, all but Young are from central Ohio.

Other contributors have included Westerville North graduate Austin Bennett, Eastmoor graduate Zion Parham and Centennial graduate Jeremiah Fair-Harris. Bennett, a 6-2 freshman guard/forward, averaged 7.2 points, while Parham, a 6-0 freshman guard, averaged 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists and Fair-Harris, a 5-8 sophomore guard, averaged 3.8 points.

"This is our second (time) in three years (in a national tournament)," Thompson said. "This one was in Division III, but we played pretty much an all-Division II schedule, and the reason I do that is to prepare us for nationals. A lot of teams try to play an easy schedule to pad their records. These guys bought in early.

"In Division I (at the junior college level), they have dorms and a meal plan, in Division II they pay for books and school and Division III is all academic. They're all pretty much Pell Grant kids. With Columbus State, your Pell Grant covers pretty much all your education. A lot of people want to hear the word 'scholarship.' Being on a full Pell Grant is free, so free is free. ... I'm going to start saying you have a Pell scholarship, because it's the same thing."

julrey@thisweeknews.com

@UlreyThisWeek