After 6 years, Mercer's Gollon NCAA-tourney bound

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FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — After four years of college, Mercer forward Jakob Gollon had a bachelor's degree in communications. After five years, he added a master's degree in educational leadership.

And after six years, he's going to the NCAA tournament.

Gollon has taken a path unlike any other to the Big Dance. No one in Division I men's basketball history has ever played more games without getting to the NCAA tournament, a distinction Gollon was unaware of, doesn't particularly want and after next week he will no longer have. He's played in 152 games over his six seasons, the first two ending prematurely because of injuries.

His final season will end in the NCAA's thanks to Mercer's win over Florida Gulf Coast in Sunday's Atlantic Sun Conference championship game, and six years ago, even Gollon couldn't have envisioned that he would ever reach college basketball's biggest stage.

"It's been a saga," Gollon said.

That's quite an understatement.

Gollon's tale really begins as a high school junior in Stevens Point, Wis., where he broke his left foot. Surgery, which included the need for a 4½-inch screw, didn't do the job completely. Unbeknownst to him at the time, everything from bone spurs to stress fractures were adding to his pain.

"My foot was basically breaking down at all different angles," Gollon said. "There's kind of a chain reaction effect when you have a bad surgery."

Then his college plans looked in doubt after Mercer chose to not renew the contract of coach Mark Slonaker in 2008 — and Slonaker was the coach who recruited Gollon.

But after a meeting with Bob Hoffman, who was hired to replace Slonaker, Gollon decided he still wanted to attend Mercer.

"Jake was recruited, I didn't recruit him, I got the job, I went to see him and talk to him," Hoffman said. "He decided to stay and we decided he would be a good fit for how we play."

The saga hardly ends there.

Gollon played in two games his freshman year, which ended with a recurrence of foot problems. He made it all the way to nine games the following season, that one being halted with not just more issues with the left foot but new ones with his right knee. And after being told that the rehabilitation from surgery on both his knee and foot — that one being termed a reconstruction — would be eight arduous months, Gollon figured his playing days were done.

"You hear all the horror stories about guys that get hurt and get cut because I wasn't one of coach Hoffman's recruits," Gollon said. "I thought it was by some special graces that he even wanted me around."

He's played in every one of Mercer's 141 games since, averaging 7.9 points and being part of 92 wins in that span. Teammates gave him the ultimate tip of the cap after Sunday's A-Sun title game win; he was the one who got to leave the court at FGCU with the championship net hanging from his neck.

After six years, he more than earned that privilege.

"By the time that final surgery finished up, I was just about to start that third season," Gollon said. "Since then I haven't missed a game. It hasn't been easy."

He found out by the time that his undergraduate work ended that he would get both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons of eligibility restored, which allowed him to chart both his academic and athletic path. Hoffman likes to joke that Gollon should be a doctoral candidate by now, but many of the classes he would have to be taking this year are in Atlanta, about a 90-minute drive each way from Mercer's campus in Macon, Ga.

Since Gollon doesn't have his own car, that made commuting less than feasible while working around basketball. So instead, the self-proclaimed "kind of a sucker, a softie for fine arts" has stuck around campus, studying things like poetry.

"Hey, I like stuff like that," said Gollon, who has also written columns for his hometown newspaper.

So he knows what makes a good story. And he knows that wrapping up this six-year odyssey in the NCAA tournament is a pretty solid ending.

"It's going to be exciting," Gollon said.

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