by Tom Coombe -
The Vermilion Ironmen probably played their best basketball of the year last Saturday in an 81-70 victory over Central Lakes.
It turns out that it was major milestone for their head coach as well.
The Vermilion victory was Paul McDonald's 500th in a storied college coaching career that began on the Ely campus in 1990, and has included three trips to the national tournament, numerous state and regional playoff appearances and several conference titles along the way.
McDonald knew he was closing in on the 500 win club but wasn't aware until an e-mail message arrived Monday morning that number 500 came two days earlier.
"I really didn't know," McDonald said Wednesday night after another VCC win: a 92-71 trumph at Fond du Lac. "You think back it's been five years since the other one (400th win) and five times 20 is another 100. It just proves I've been around for a long time, and blessed with some good players."
The Chisholm native, who doubles as VCC's athletic director, has developed one of the nation's top small-community college men's basketball programs, sending countless players on to four-year schools and piling up the wins in the process.
Vermilion has dropped heartbreakers the last two years to rival Rochester, falling one game short of national tournament trips.
McDonald-led Vermlion teams have headed to New York for national tournaments in 1999, 2001 and 2002, with the 1999 team falling in the national championship game.
After a slow start and with a revamped roster, Vermilion appears to be making another charge, winning seven of its first nine Northern Division tilts to grab a share of first place.
The Ironmen, now 13-8 overall, are also closing in on a berth in the state and regional playoffs, set for Mar. 3- 5 at Coon Rapids.
While McDonald has bagged 500 wins at VCC, he's still less than halfway to the seemingly unfathomable total of 1,012 wins amassed by his father Bob, the legendary and now retired mentor at Chisholm.
Paul doesn't figure to make a run at his dad's mark.
"It just puts into perspective exactly what he did," Paul said. "I've been going at this at Vermilion for 27 years now with some (high school) stops before. I won't coach 1,000 games, let alone do what he did."
Ironmen 92, Fond du Lac 71 -
A game of runs Wedneday night went to the visiting Ironmen, who took the Northern Division clash at Cloquet.
"It was a crazy game," said McDonald. "We started up 9-0 and then they went 21-4 on us, and we ended up finishing the half with a 16-2 run to take the lead at halftime."
VCC led 45-36 at the break and scored six straight points to start the second stanza and take control of the game.
Freshman guard Cliff Lloyd led a balanced VCC attack with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five steals, but he had plenty of help.
Denario Jackson, Devontah Whitaker and Bradlee Lewis added 15 points each, with Whitaker also snaring 13 rebounds.
Elijah Johnson added 11 points and Demetrice Mitchell finished with 10 for the Ironmen.
"We played very well defensively and had good balance," said McDonald.
Jackson, Whittaker and Felix Taylor had five assists each for VCC.
Ironmen 81, Central Lakes 70 -
Vermilion had its best half of the year against the Raiders, scoring 50 points in the opening 20 minutes and grabbing a 19-point lead at the break.
Lloyd had 29 points and most of his nine steals in the first half, when the Ironmen led by as many as 23 points.
Central Lakes, which beat Vermilion earlier in the year at Brainerd, slowed the tempo in the second half and clawed back to within five points, but Lloyd and Jackson helped close the show for the Ironmen.
They combined for 48 points.