MARION – He had the whole state at his fingertips in the form of a few well wishes.
“We got so many messages from the high school coaches across the state,” said Indiana Wesleyan associate head coach Jeff Clark. “Just saying, ‘Thanks for playing the way you guys play and for representing our state.'”
That wasn’t a burden that the coach figured his Wildcats squad–an NAIA Division II team–would have to shoulder inside a state that has rich heritage of success on the men’s side of the game. But when all ten of the Division I programs failed to make the tournament and the others men’s programs in the NCAA and NAIA were eliminated, suddenly the hopes for a title went through a university in Marion.
Don’t think the Wildcats didn’t know that.
“We were definitely cognizant of that fact,” said Clark. “Because most of the guys that we recruit are from the State of Indiana and we’re just so proud to be in this state because it’s such a great basketball state, so we really felt this responsibility to have to have success because everyone was out of the tournament.”
It was a challenge they not only embraced but excelled in, running through their tournament in the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo. like no team has in history. In their five game run through the 32-tournament they became the first team to defeat their opponent by double digits in every contest.
Reinhardt (Ga.), Oklahoma Wesleyan, Friends (Kan.), Southeastern (Fla.) and Midland (Neb.) were never able to stay with the quick-tempo Wildcats over the six-day even. The final win–a 78-68 victory over Midland on Tuesday night–locked up the first championship in men’s basketball in program history.
“It’s kinda cool to be the last team in Indiana standing,” said guard Bob Peters, who admits he found out during the tournament that Indiana Wesleyan would carry the torch for men’s programs throughout the state. “But more importantly we were happy to win a national championship.”
With a celebration complete with confetti, a trophy and banner nonetheless. When the team returned from Point Lookout, they were greeted by a large crowd and fireworks as they stepped off the bus with the new hardware. An exciting moment for the players was just as fun for the coaches as well, since the team won 14-of-15 games to finish a 31-6 season at the top of NAIA.
“The best part, the most satisfying thing was watching our guys celebrate because those guys put in so much time and effort and so much sweat equity in this program,” said Clark. “To see them celebrate and the joy they had was a lot of fun.”
So why the dominant run toward the end and the strong season? Many of the players say it’s the team ability to play a solid brand of team basketball which allowed them to reach their peak at the NAIA Division II tournament.
“It was different than any other team that I’ve been apart of,” said guard Garvin Haughey. “Our mindset has been hard work all year. We had our ups and downs at the beginning of the season that when we locked in and really decided that we were going to work hard and be the best team that we could be, it really showed.”
One of the origins of this is the team’s philosophy of “I Am Third”–a critical part of a program at the Christian institution.
“God first, your teammates second, and yourself third,” said Clark as he pointed that out on the wall of the team lounge and locker room–one that has the look of a Division I program thanks to a commitment by the administration to the program.
During the season the team even had “Team 3” warm-up shirts which they would sport on the sideline to further reinforce this slogan throughout the team.
“It’s made everyone kinda focus on somebody other than themselves,” said forward Zac Vandewater of “I Am Third.” “I think that’s huge on why we had so much success.”
The hope is that with the title, the philosophy and the strong facilities that the program’s forward movement will continue. At the very least, they brought a championship to a season where a number of their counterparts saw their seasons come to an early end.
“We were really, really proud of that,” said Clark as the road to collegiate men’s basketball success starts in Marion in 2014.