By Jerry Durney and Daniel Supraner
There have been many players who have captured the imagination of Florida Tech men’s basketball fans over the decades, whether at the old Percy Hedgecock Gymnasium or, these days, at the Clemente Center. Few, however, have been talked about in such regard to this day as the Canadian quintet of Robert Sewell ’92, Astley Smith ’91, Mike Smith ’91, ’11 M.S., Peter Walcott ’95 and Dwight Walton ’91.
Together, the “Maple Leaf Five” sparked the most successful era in program history between 1988–1995: three 20-win seasons, two NCAA Tournament appearances (the first in program history, along with a first-ever tournament win), and a first-ever Sunshine State Conference regular season championship.
Prior to their arrival in Melbourne in the fall of 1987, the Panthers had gone eight consecutive seasons without a winning record and had never won more than four games in conference play since joining the SSC in 1981.
Walton, a future Olympian with the Canadian national team, transferred to Florida Tech after one season at Siena College. By rule he had to sit out the 1987–88 season before he began his three seasons in the Crimson and Gray. However, then-Panther head coach Tom Folliard Sr. figured that there had to be more talent where Dwight came from, so he went to his prized transfer for confirmation.
“Coach Folliard asked me if there were any other players from Montreal like me,” said Walton. “The funny story is he came to Montreal, and he was the only coach there with about 20 guys in the gym. We placed a chair for him on the sideline, and he watched 20 players go at it. He asked me to come over and he said ‘Dwight, I like him, him and him,’ and those guys were the Smith brothers and Garfield Glasgow.”
As Walton redshirted, the Panthers’ ascent began during the 1987–88 campaign. The team, led by future Florida Tech Hall of Famers Tom Folliard Jr. ’89 and Davon Kelly ’90, won 18 games, their most in over a decade, and recorded a winning conference record for the first time. Astley Smith’s 13 points per game were good enough to earn SSC All-Freshman team and All-SSC Honorable Mention honors.
During that season, Folliard Sr. had been recruiting Astley’s younger brother, Mike. His first experience with Florida Tech and the environment it provided came in February 1988 during his recruiting visit as he watched the Panthers defeat Tampa for the first time in program history, 68-63.
“The game I went to, just to see how packed the gym was and with all the fraternities and everybody that was there, I was sold right away,” said Mike Smith. “Not just because my brother and Dwight were there, but also the atmosphere at the school at the time, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is where I want to be.’”
Walton joined the team in the 1988–89 season and made an immediate impact, averaging 19.1 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, earning First Team All-SSC honors and becoming the program’s first All-American by earning NABC Third Team All-America honors. Together with Kelly, the Smith brothers, Robert Sewell and point guard Ray Paprocky, the rest of the SSC found out that Florida Tech was now very much for real.
The peak of the program’s history may have come on Dec. 29 and 30, 1988, when Hedgecock Gym hosted the Florida Today/McDonell Douglas Holiday Classic, an event that featured three Division I schools.
The first evening’s action saw the Panthers cruise to a 106-87 victory over a John Calipari-led Massachusetts team. After 742 career wins, six Final Four trips and a national championship at the collegiate level along with a head coaching stint in the NBA, that Thursday night in Melbourne is still firmly entrenched in the legendary coach’s memory.
“Years later, I’m at an NABC Foundation event and I’m one table over from where Calipari is,” Folliard Jr. recalls. “I went over to his table, I said ‘Hey coach, nice to meet you, I don’t know if you remember me, but I went to Florida Tech and you guys came here and I don’t know if you remember but we beat you.’ He said, ‘Do I remember? You guys had all those Canadians!’”
One night later, the Panthers took on Boston College from the Big East Conference, a team that featured Dana Barros, an All-Big East sharpshooter who went on to be an All-Star during a 14-year career in the NBA.
“He put his son Kevin, who’s not the fastest guy or the tallest guy, on him,” recalls Mike Smith, “He basically said, ‘No matter who we put on Dana Barros, he’s going to drop 30 points on us, right?’ and the goal is for nobody else to score in double digits.”
Barros was successful, but the Eagles needed his prolific scoring just to keep them in the game against the Panthers at a frenzied Hedgecock Gym. The game was decided in the final seconds when Kelly sunk a pair of free throws to clinch the 77-75 victory for Florida Tech.
The Panthers went on to finish the regular season at 22-6 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Mike Smith earned SSC Freshman of the Year honors, while Sewell joined him on the All-Freshman Team.
The following year, in 1989–90, the Panthers went 25-2 during the regular season, including 11-1 in conference play, which gave them a share of the SSC regular season championship for the first time in program history.
Walton and Astley Smith were named First Team All-SSC, while Kelly was named to the Second Team and Folliard Sr. was named SSC Co-Coach of the Year. Walton also earned a second consecutive NABC Third Team All-American honor.
The Panthers again returned to the NCAA Tournament, earning their first win by defeating Norfolk State, 73-63, in the South Atlantic regional semifinal. Florida Tech then fell in the Sweet 16 to Morehouse, 81-77.
In the 1990–91 season, the Panthers amassed a 20-5 regular season, led by Walton’s 15.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, which earned him a third consecutive First Team All-SSC honor and a third consecutive NABC All-American honor, this time to the Second Team. He remains the only Panther to have multiple All-American awards. Astley Smith made the All-SSC Second Team, earning him All-Conference honors all four seasons in Melbourne, while his brother Mike garnered Honorable Mention.
The Panthers reached the SSC Tournament Final for the first time but were ultimately denied another return trip to the Big Dance as they fell to Florida Southern in the championship game.
Plenty of changes came after the 1990–91 season. Walton and the Smith brothers graduated while Tom Folliard Sr. retired from coaching. Taking over for him was Andy Russo, who experienced success coaching at the Division I level with Louisiana Tech and Washington. He also got some help from the North in Peter Walcott, a guard from Montreal. From his first day in Melbourne, Peter knew he had a reputation to uphold.
“When I got down there, it was like, ‘Oh, you’re the new Canadian? Are you as good as Dwight, Mikey and Astley?’” said Walcott.
During a four-year career in which he never missed a game, Walcott averaged 15.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game. He won SSC Freshman of the Year following the 1991–92 season and was named First Team All-SSC in each of the next three seasons. Walcott and Walton remain the only Panthers to have earned First Team honors three times.
As the years moved on, the Maple Leaf Five’s legacy became more recognized. Walton got inducted into the Florida Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and the SSC Hall of Fame in 2011. The 1989–90 team was inducted into the Florida Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, and Walcott joined them in February 2020.
Three decades later, the lessons that the players learned during their time at Florida Tech still resonate with them today in different lines of work.
“I’m managing a health center, coordinating everybody from our nurses, security to transportation,” said Mike Smith. “One of the things Coach Folliard really taught us to do was adapt to situations. I look back at when we played Boston College and his philosophy that allowed us to beat them: Don’t fight the inevitable; recognize what you can control, and take care of that. I look at that a lot in life and focus on that.”
“It’s all about the defensive intensity, the raw passion, the love of the game that Coach Folliard brought to us,” said Walton, who today serves as an assistant coach at Concordia University in Montreal. “He was strict, but he was also a player’s coach at the same time. The overall attention to detail, he allowed his players to play but also wanted certain things from you.”
“What my time at Florida Tech strengthened in me was that the work you put in on your own is what’s going to push you forward,” said Walcott, now a data processor for the Lester B. Pearson School Board in Quebec. “I knew at some point I had to be my own driving force. Our program enabled me to grow that inner strength.”
It wasn’t just the lessons on the court that stuck with the players—life on campus helped them expand their world as well.
“The biggest thing anyone can learn playing a team sport and going to a university outside of your city is bridging the gap,” said Astley Smith, who currently works in the housekeeping department at Lakeshore General Hospital just outside Montreal. “We had guys from Africa and Yugoslavia on our team. So, I got to meet and experience a lot of people at Florida Tech from all over the world. Depending on the job, you’re going to meet people from all walks of life, so Florida Tech helped give me a head start with that.”
Find more coverage on the history and accomplishments of the Maple Leaf Five at FloridaTechSports.com.
This piece was featured in the spring 2021 edition of Florida Tech Magazine.