Photo Credit: Lewis-Clark State Athletics

Coming into the 2019-20 college basketball season, Lewis-Clark State Warriors guard Josiah Westbrook was more focused than ever.

“The offseason was big for me,” Westbrook said. “My teammate Damek [Mitchell] is from the same area, so all we did was train in the gym and push each other every day. Also, mentally I was engaged, watched more film and let the game come.”

A Matter of Trust

Westbrook’s head coach, Austin Johnson, began to trust the guard more.

“The biggest thing that increased his production was the relationship and trust that he and I developed. And the biggest part of that trust came from how much tougher Josiah was mentally as a competitor and teammate during his senior year,” Johnson said. “The minute his junior year was done, we had countless talks in person and on the phone about how we were only going to go as far as his toughness could take us. For us that toughness meant consistency, coach-ability, who he needed to be as a teammate leader and winner.”

In his first season since transferring from Olympia College (Wash.), Westbrook averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in 36 games. Prior to this past season, Westbrook’s focus changed, according to Coach Johnson, from his own production to the team’s success.

“His identity was less on scoring and more on winning,” said Johnson. “He still scored and was one of the best shooters in the country statistically, but all of that flowed from making winning the main priority.”

The identity shift showed for Westbrook and Lewis-Clark. In 27 starts, Westbrook finished the season as one of the nation’s best shooters. He averaged 47 percent from the three-point line. His success beyond the arc helped propel Lewis-Clark to a 29-win season, and a legitimate shot at a championship.

Tragedy Strikes the Westbrook Family

During the 2019-20 season, however, Westbrook dealt with tragedy and grief. On Feb. 1, Westbrook’s father passed away. Westbrook’s father, as he explains, was the reason that he played basketball.

“He introduced me to the game of basketball. I would go to the [YMCA] with him every morning when I was little just to watch the open gym and he would rebound for me while I shot every time after,” Westbrook said. “Me playing felt empty without him at first, but he wouldn’t want me feeling that way.”

Westbrook’s father brought him motivation, both before and after his passing.

“It brought me all my motivation,” Westbrook said about his motivation after his father’s death. “Even when he was alive he brought me motivation. He was at every event he could be at with me and always made sure I was ready to go. (He) encouraged me every day about the game.”

NAIA Tournament Cancellation

After Lewis-Clark defeated Carroll College in the Frontier Conference Championship, Westbrook and the Warriors were set to face off against 25-seed Talladega in the first-round of the NAIA National Championship.

Unfortunately, the game would never happen. Before it could, the NAIA announced the cancellation of its winter sports tournaments. Westbrook found out of the cancellation through a text message and a notification on his phone.

“I learned when my teammate texted me saying everything’s canceled,” Westbrook said. “I then got an ESPN notification about all the major (Division I) conference tournaments getting canceled and everybody started following the trend.”

With talks of the NAIA closing the tournament games to fans, Westbrook didn’t expect the tournament to be canceled.

“I had no thought of the tournament being canceled; I heard about no fans being there an only having family. But I thought everything was still in place,” said Westbrook. “It would have felt different, but I wanted a ring bad.”

Lewis-Clark only had two seniors on their roster: Westbrook and guard Conner Moffatt. With the talent Lewis-Clark had, Johnson thought they had a legitimate chance of winning a championship. With the news of the tournament being canceled, Johnson’s reaction was one of heartbroken for the seniors.

“I was heartbroken for Josiah and Conner Moffatt. The amount of work and sacrifice those two had put into their careers and this program was immeasurable. So to not have them get a chance to compete again and on the national stage was very disappointing and sad,” Johnson said. “As a competitor, everything points to that senior year of college and the expectations that come with it (especially when you are playing on a great team.”

Silver Linings

Despite his senior season ending prematurely, Westbrook finished his career at Lewis-Clark State as the winningest two-year players in the program’s history with 59 wins.

“Josiah has had a tremendous impact on our program over his two years. He has a variety of different roles on the team. As a junior, he started about the first half of the season, but then we moved him out of the starting lineup and used him as a scorer off the bench,” said Johnson. “His senior year, he was a day 1 starter and was one of the best players in the league. We talk to our guys all the time that the most important stat in basketball is: WINNING. And no player in school history has won more than he has over a two-year span.”