February 25, 2010

The Midwest's forgotten team

This year is shaping up to be just like any other in D-III men's hoops -- it's another stellar season for the state of Wisconsin, and the headlines are going to the traditional state powers of Whitewater, Stevens Point and Carthage. Only this year, there's another team lurking in the shadows that's hoping to make some serious noise.

Enter the Green Knights of St. Norbert, a program that endured three straight losing seasons between 2004-05 and '06-07, failing to win more than nine games even once. They were in need of a turnaround, and that's where Gary Grzesk came in.

Gary Grzesk, Woody Wilson
St. Norbert athletics photo
Gary Grzesk, along with assistant Woody Wilson, a former D-I assistant, have helped elevate the
St. Norbert men's basketball program.

Grzesk was a four-year letterwinner at UW-Green Bay in the mid 1990s, and a former assistant coach at Youngstown State and then at his alma mater before landing a head coaching gig at Lakeland in 2004. Then, after three successful seasons, he landed in the Midwest Conference, taking over the reins of a St. Norbert team in need of a shake-up. He wasn't inheriting a pedigree of great success in Wisconsin, but he was willing to work to turn things around.

"There's not a long tradition of success here," Grzesk admitted. "But if you look at our recent history, we've made the (four-team) conference tournament the last three years, and that's a pretty good starting point. There's not a long history or tradition of success, but in recent years we've built the program up to the point where we can be competitive."

Grzesk has slowly and steadily rebuilt the program. The first recruiting class he brought in, matriculating in the fall of 2007, was a deep and talented one. He brought in six rookies that season, and right away he fielded a young, inexperienced team that learned the college game on the fly. Now those kids are juniors, and it's a different story.

"Our juniors were fortunate enough to play right away," Grzesk said. "There's a lot of experience there now. We only have one senior on our roster, but there is a lot of game experience on this team, and those kids have taken their lumps. They've gone from 14 wins as freshmen, to 18 last year, to the season we're having now. They've paid their dues, and it's been a slow and steady building process to get here."

The juniors include Dave Wipperfurth, who's getting the job done on the perimeter as the team's leading scorer. There's Chris Peterson, the team's leading big man at 6-foot-5. John Taylor runs the point, and he's been all kinds of efficient this season. Steve Papke, the team's bulky power forward, has started every game this season.

The Green Knights have a deep, experienced ensemble cast calling the shots. They've played 19 different guys this season; they've started eight of them. And while it may look a little bit unorthodox, it certainly works -- they're 20-3 this season, having run away with the top seed in the MWC Tournament. And that means home-court advantage this weekend, taking the floor at the Schuldes Center.

John Taylor
St. Norbert athletics photo
John Taylor has 100 assists and just 33 turnovers in 23 games at point guard for the Green Knights.

"We would much rather be at home for the conference tournament than be anywhere else, Grzesk said. "Two years ago, we were the four seed, and we had to play at Lawrence. Last year we had Grinnell, and we played on their floor. We'd much rather be at home than anywhere else."

This year, they're at home, and they'll take on a Ripon team that's having its best season in five years under veteran head coach Bob Gillespie. The two teams have met twice this season already, with the first-place Green Knights getting the best of the Red Hawks both times. St. Norbert won on the road, 66-52, on Jan. 9; they took home another win two weeks ago, winning at home in a closer one, 77-72 on Feb. 10.

"We played unquestionably our worst game of the year the first time that we played St. Norbert," Gillespie said. "It was a home game, and we just did not play very well. We played reasonably well over there, though, and we certainly played well enough offensively to win. In order to beat them on Friday we have to play a little bit better, especially defensively, if we're going to pull off the upset."

Ripon has come on strong since late February, surging over the past four weeks to a record of 15-8, the program's best since 2005. They've let up on the gas pedal a little bit in the past week, but they're ready to floor it come playoff time.

"We're coming off a stretch where we had won six out of seven, but we dropped our last two games in the regular season after clinching our conference tournament berth," Gillespie said. "I really believe that our kids going in feel confident, that we can be in the game for sure and we can compete. We weren't at full strength last time we played St. Norbert -- we had a starter that was out, who obviously will play this weekend. We're not going to be in awe or anything like that. Our kids feel that we've played a good conference schedule and we can compete with anybody in the nation in D-III."

Ripon is led by a pair of youngsters that are ready to take the next step. They're led in scoring and rebounding by a sophomore big man, Aris Wurtz, and their best player on the perimeter is junior Scott Gillespie, the coach's son. Around the two star players, they've built a solid supporting cast that's ready to win.

"They're fairly easy to prepare for because you know what you're going to get with them," Grzesk said. "They have great motion, they play good defense and they mix in a little bit of zone. They're very easy to prepare for but very difficult to play against."

But if anyone's ready to take on those Hawks, it's Grzesk's bunch. This is a program that's been steadily on the rise over the past three years, and they're set to prove that they're a real contender.

"I think when you look back over the course of our season and how consistent our play has been, I think we should be confident," Grzesk said. "I think if we can play at a high level, we can play together and we can play well, we're going to be a very hard team to beat."

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, people have started to find that out. In due time, the rest of the nation may too.

EPHS BACK ON TOP: It's just like old times again -- the Williams men are looking forward to hosting the NESCAC final four on their own floor.

For the first time since 2004, the Ephs are coming off of a 9-0 season in conference play and they're home at Chandler Gym for the conference semifinals. They'll take on a Bates team that's won seven of its last eight and desperately wants to pull off the upset.

In '04, the defending national champion Ephs surged all the way back to Salem, beating archrival Amherst in the national semifinal and coming within one basket of UW-Stevens Point in the final. This year, they're still a ways off from returning to that plateau -- but it's certainly nice to start their run at home.

"We earned the right to host the tournament," coach Mike Maker said in a news release after the Ephs' first-round NESCAC win. "We feel comfortable at home and on the road, but we would obviously rather play at home. We can’t rely on the crowd, though; we have to draw energy from within ourselves and play with the passion, spirit, and togetherness we played with in the second half tonight."

To get the ball rolling, the Ephs put together a solid 77-62 win over Wesleyan in the quarterfinals. That was a good start, but they're still six rounds away from making that return trip to Salem.

SCRANTON IN UNFAMILIAR SPOT: The Scranton women have had an incredible run, winning 20-plus games in 19 consecutive seasons under coach Mike Strong. But this weekend, they run into a really tough test.

The Royals are slated for a showdown with the Moravian Greyhounds, winners of 19 straight games and undefeated regular-season champions of the Landmark Conference, in Saturday's league final. And if they lose the final, they could find trouble getting into the women's NCAA Tournament field of 64.

The Royals are 22-4 this season, but they've already lost twice to Moravian, including a 77-60 thumping last Saturday afternoon that cost them a share of first place in the conference.

"The Moravian game definitely was an eye-opener,” Scranton junior Megan Kopecki told the Scranton Edition. “We pretty much got smacked."

They'll have a chance at redemption this week. But more importantly, they'll have a chance at their seventh straight conference championship. As always this time of year, there's a lot on the line.

TURNAROUND: After going 31-11 in conference play over the previous three seasons, returning all their players including a pair of eventual 1,200-plus point career scorers and earning a preseason national ranking of No. 14 in the D3hoops.com Top 25, expectations were at an all-time high for this year’s Cal Lutheran men’s basketball team.

After dropping its season opener and losing twice to Chapman, along with suffering a 27-point loss to Redlands in a rare non-conference meeting against a SCIAC opponent, it was an unexpected beginning to what was supposed to be one of the program’s most successful campaigns.

Once the conference schedule started the Kingsmen found themselves 1-2 and hoping to use a win over Pomona-Pitzer as a launching pad. CLU held a 66-65 margin with only seconds remaining when the Sagehens knocked down a buzzer-beating three sending CLU into a first round downward spiral that left the Kingsmen 2-5 with slim and dwindling hopes of any postseason play.

All but an afterthought for the four-team SCIAC tournament to most, Cal Lutheran essentially was playing for its playoff lives each time it took the floor. In the process CLU would not only need to run the table equaling a feat it has not accomplished since the start of the SCIAC schedule during the 2001-02 season, but need to get help from others fading down the stretch.

Starting with a round two victory over Caltech, the Kingsmen avenged previous losses with narrow four-point wins over La Verne and Occidental. They not only evened the score with P-P, but won the game following an Aaron Fisher three-pointer in the final seconds to earn a 65-62 win. Follow that with a wire-to-wire 84-72 win over Redlands and the idea of a tournament berth was again a topic of conversation.

After another single digit win over Whittier it would come down to the final night of the regular season against back-to-back regular season conference champions Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. A CLU win and in with a loss turning this storybook tale into a non-fiction tragedy.

Tied 33-33 at halftime Kingsmen senior Kyle Knudsen knocked down an opening second half possession three-pointer that would help catapult CLU to a 74-67 victory and SCIAC tournament berth.

Cal Lutheran will travel to Pomona-Pitzer on Friday, Feb. 26 to participate in the SCIAC Tournament semifinals.

Essentially needing to win out not only in the regular season but earning two more victories in the conference tournament semifinal and title game, completing the run would not only give Cal Lutheran an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament but also provide coach Rich Rider career win No. 400.

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