SALEM, Va. (WFXR) — Not too long ago, Mark Byington had a homecoming of sorts when he spoke at a meeting of the Roanoke Valley Sports Club at the Salem Civic Center.
“Salem just has a special place in my heart,” Byington said. “Just growing up here. I love where I’m from. Very proud to be from Salem. More than anything I like the work ethic that was installed in me from my parents and people around me and how you’re supposed to go about things.”
The things he did in his first year as head coach of the James Madison men’s basketball team exceeded his own expectations.
“I didn’t expect to win the league, the regular season championship and do the things we did but it was difficult,” Byington said. “Just the mental anxiety of what you have to go through on a day to day basis.”
Covid tests, masks and empty arenas defined much of college basketball last season. And when you add in the injurt of JMU star player Matt Lewis, it’s no wonder that Byington was pleased with a 13-7 record at the end of his first campaign.
“What I like is what we built going into that, what we showed playing without Matt Lewis gives us hope for next year and the future looks bright,” Byington said. “I love our recruiting class coming in and love the guys coming back. Our schedule is going to be daunting next year.”
It’s a schedule that includes a visit from Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers, just one of several opportunities for the Dukes to prove they can compete with anyone in the Commonwealth.
“We want to be relevant, not just in the state of Virginia but especially in the state of Virginia. So if there’s a good player here, we want to be involved in recruiting, we want them to know about James Madison,” Byington said.
And Byington says he’ll rely heavily on James Madison’s new basketball arena, the Atlantic Union Bank Center, to draw recruits. The venue made its debut last season but was unable to host fans due to the pandemic.
“And our new arena, I feel is about the nicest in the state. They come to our facility, they come to our campus, we’re not going to back down from anybody.”
When it comes to coaching, Byington is applying the same lessons learned from growing up in Salem.
“Same thing we’re doing at James Madison,” Byington said. “We know we have plenty of work and build it up and do things the right way.”