The sights, sounds and moments of the MIAC championship game from players and coaches.
By Conrad Engstrom, Mathias Durie and Godfrey Mpetey
Chills traveled through the body of Bethel University senior guard Trevor Hall as he walked up the steps to enter the gym an hour before tip-off to find a packed gym cheering his arrival. It was just shootaround. He wasn’t nervous, he’s been here before. The last three years, Hall and the Royal’s season has ended at the hands of St. Thomas in the MIAC tournament. Now playing in the MIAC Championship game at home against St. John’s, what did he have to be nervous about?
For the first time ever last Saturday night, fans piled into the Robertson Center gym for the MIAC men’s basketball championship game between the Bethel Royals and the St. John’s Johnnies. The RC sold out at 6:15 p.m, 30 minutes after the doors opened and 45 minutes before the ball tipped off. Three hours later, with the gym at full capacity, a Trevor Hall layup followed by a Bridgeport Tusler steal sealed the MIAC Championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the Royals, a feat the program has not tasted since 1991.
In the waning moments of the game, Hall knew the play was designed to go to him, but he didn’t think he would get the ball. The defense stuck to him like a glove. Bridgeport Tusler threaded the needle to get the pass into Hall’s hands. All he had to do was finish. “I was not thinking that I needed to score the basket, I was thinking we needed to score this basket,” Hall said as his left handed scoop shot gave the Royals the lead with just 10 seconds left in the game.
Fans rushed the court as the clock hit zero. Screams and hollering drowned out the sound of the final buzzer. Students sprinted past Johnnie players sulking off the court with their heads on the hardwood and their hearts in their hands. Fans began mobbing their champion friends, hoisting them up above the crowd and chanting their names. After the chaos settled, the players began cutting down the net to the constant roars from friends and family in the crowd. After each player collected their respective token of victory, seniors Hall and Wojta climbed the ladder side-by-side, cut down the rest of the net and swung it like a lasso as they let out a cheer to the crowd.
Doug Novak has been the head coach of the men’s program for 4 years, leading the Royals to their second appearance in the MIAC championship game. The first, in 2015, saw them play the Tommies of St. Thomas. Down three points with seconds to play, Tusler shot a three-pointer which rolled off the rim, resulting in a crushing end of season loss. Two years later, Novak hugs members that 2015 team who have graduated and says, “Now we can finally cut down the nets.”
Bethel Athletic Director Bob Bjorklund, who was the Bethel men’s basketball coach from 1997-2006, sees Novak continuing the vision for the program by becoming very successful in his first four years as head coach. He is impressed with the balance Novak has between working hard and letting his players have time off.
“High praise for Coach Novak, doing things the right way, and letting the results take care of themselves,” Bjorklund said. “I think he’s efficient and I think he’s effective.”
As the fans mobbed the players after the buzzer, the two seniors, Trevor Hall and Brycen Wojta escaped the moshpit to shake the hands of the devastated St. John’s coaches and players. Three months ago, Trevor Hall did an interview with Bethel’s Sports Information Director Jared Johnson before their first game. He was humored when Johnson asked about season expectations, a topic that Coach Novak scoffs at. “It would be pretty sweet to make the NCAA Tournament,” Hall said. As he and Wojta retrieve the MIAC plaque and hoist it towards the sky, that is exactly where they will be headed next.
The 2016-17 team has a unique mix of experience and raw talent. Freshmen Granger Kingland and Jack Jenson provide a spark off the bench and because of injuries, Kingland has been a starter for multiple games for the Royals. The leadership of seniors Hall and Wojta and junior Tusler helped these two freshmen play free and passionate without fear of failure. Bethel Athletic Director has high praise for these captains who have been warm-welcoming and supportive of their new freshman teammates.
“Those three captains have done an incredible job of linking those young guys in,” Bjorklund said. “The leadership that some of those older guys have shown has been so impressive and so strong.”
Novak also has nothing but high praise for the freshman.
“Both of those freshmen are no longer freshman because of the amount of minutes they played,” Novak said. “The lights, the crowd, the moment, the gym could have been empty and they would’ve done their job and done it well. That’s special.”
At the end of the game, Coach Novak reflected on the events that just transpired during the game with his team. Novak has coached games against Michigan St. and Washington St. at the division one level while working as an assistant coach at Tulane and The Citadel but nothing compares to the atmosphere at the Robertson Center that Saturday night.
“That’s the best atmosphere I’ve played in during my coaching career.” Novak said.
The win marked the Royals 21st win of the season, which tied the school record set in 2002. After winning their first MIAC regular season championship a week and half prior, the Royals captured the conference tournament trophy for the first time since 1991.
Offensive coordinator of the Royal’s football team Greg Peterson was apart of the last team that won the MIAC championship in 1991. Peterson highlighted the opportunity of playing in big games on the road against St. Thomas and Gustavus, both being seeded higher than them. Compared to the championship win in 1991, the big game feeling led Peterson to experience memorable moments. Peterson felt the game last Saturday had a similar feeling.
“Hearing SJU fans quiet,” chuckles Peterson after reminiscing on Saturday’s game. “I tried to just listen and not necessarily watch. The loudness of the crowd was crazy.”
Within the craziness, Coach Novak snuck over toward the scoring table after the game was over and the ladder was put up under the net for the players to cut down the nets. During the week of the playoffs in practice Novak would play the song “One Shining Moment.” A song which is played during a montage at the end of the Division I NCAA Basketball Tournament. So only one song was fitting for the Royals as they would cut down the nets for the first time in 26 years.
“If you are a college basketball player or coach, there is definitely some meaning in that song,” Novak said. “And it’s our job as coaches is to create memorable moments.”