SOUTH PORTLAND — To the United States Marine Corps, he was Lance Cpl. Michael Harmon. To the Southern Maine Community College men’s basketball team, he’s “Uncle Mike.”

Hearing his nickname at practice, the 28-year-old guard looked up at the ceiling and grinned.

“He doesn’t like it so much,” said the team’s captain, John Morgan.

Still, Harmon is grateful for a second chance on the team’s roster. After cutting his education at SMCC short to serve the Marines in 2013, the Portland native has returned to finish what he started in the classroom and on the basketball court. This time Harmon wants to leave SMCC “the right way.”

“Mikey was a lost soul when he was here the first time,” said SMCC’s coach of 14 years, Matt Richards. “He had no direction in life.”

Richards first coached Harmon during the winter of 2012-13 – when Harmon struggled with his grades after losing his father to cancer.

“I just wasn’t ready to get back in school yet and I didn’t want to be in Maine anymore,” Harmon said. “So I tried something different.”

In between his two seasons with the SeaWolves, Harmon served four years as a rifleman stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He said the experience taught him the importance of hard work and leadership as well as having a “go-with-the-flow” mentality – a trait that’s apparent when his teammates tease him about his age.

“You see Mike throw some passes and do some moves sometimes that are just vintage from back in the day,” said Morgan, a junior from Sanford. “He’s still got it.”

“It just takes him longer to recover,” added Richards, laughing. “Mikey has created a very workman-like mentality of, ‘Hey, you come in and you work hard to do this.’ “

Despite their 14-4 record entering Wednesday’s game in Portsmouth, N.H., the SeaWolves are not a flashy squad. They win with defense and averaging 43 rebounds per game – seven more than their opponents. SMCC is ranked eighth in the nation in the latest United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II poll and has allowed opponents an average of 70.3 points – fewest in the Yankee Small College Conference.

“I wouldn’t say we’re this offensive juggernaut but this group has embraced their identity,” Richards said. “When you have a team that understands who they are early, you can have that sustained success.”

In similar fashion, Harmon isn’t a loud presence on the court. At 6 feet, he doesn’t tower over teammates nor does his voice boom through the gymnasium at practice. He averages 4.7 points and 12 minutes a game, but his leadership can be felt in less obvious ways.

“Just having a guy who’s older on the team is a big help,” said Morgan, who leads the team in scoring (15.9 points per game). “In big games you can kind of look to him and see this calmness.”

Harmon’s composure appears contagious. Seven of SMCC’s 18 games have been decided by four points or less – with the SeaWolves winning five. On Nov. 19, Harmon beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer to lift SMCC over Vermont Technical College, 69-66.

Richards said he first recognized his team’s potential in the third game of the season when the SeaWolves fell to Williamson of Pennsylvania 63-61, at the buzzer. But the loss to Williamson – ranked third in the latest USCAA poll – provided motivation.

“I thought, ‘How we come back from this will define us,’ ” Richards said.

“And we came back and really put a pounding on somebody.”

The next day the SeaWolves kicked off a six-game winning streak, including a 63-61 victory over Navy Prep on a last-second basket.

“When we won that game at the buzzer I was like, ‘OK,’ ” Richards said, ” ‘I think we have a chance.’ “

The SeaWolves have seven more regular-season games before hosting their conference tournament in mid-February.

“We haven’t done it real pretty,” Richards said. “This team is just doing it differently from teams I’ve had in the past who have had success at this stage.”

Harmon’s path also has been unconventional. He plans to graduate in May with an associate degree in liberal studies and continue his education at a four-year school.

“I didn’t really have a lot of positive influences growing up. I wish that more people would have led me in the right direction,” he said. “I mean, I’m not upset that I took the route I took but there were just easier routes.”

As a result, Harmon wants to become a teacher and a coach to help other students find their way.

“Mikey’s goal was to end this experience the right way,” Richards said. “He got his life in order to have success as a student. I’m prouder of that than anything he has given us on the court.”

Taylor Vortherms can be contacted at 791-6417 or

[email protected]

Twitter: TaylorVortherms

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