Vikings finish long voyage

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Alex Dziagwa is one of three seniors, who have seen their playing time diminish as the Vikings' juniors have taken over.
Augustana photo by Ian Magnuson (Cover image of Brandon Motzel by Larry Radloff,

By Rob Knox

One by smiling one, while being surrounded by a gaggle of elated fans and excited alumni, Augustana College men’s basketball players, coaches and staff members clipped net strands following a photo-shoot fresh performance last Saturday in a 100-51 win over Marietta that cemented the Vikings’ first trip to the Final Four in 22 years.

The Vikings will board a plane for Salem, Va., later this week expecting a much smoother trip than the bumpy road they traveled this season to Division III’s ultimate basketball party. The journey was filled with ditches, potholes, breaks, sprains, concussions, strains, lineup adjustments and more.

Yet, despite the adversity they endured, the Vikings are where they believed they always would be when the season started in October and after they defeated Bradley in an exhibition contest. No matter the struggles, the Vikings are stronger than ever, more focused and confident in their ability to finish as the last team standing this weekend in Salem.  

“Every season is a journey and you never know what’s going to happen,” junior Ben Ryan said. “We’ve responded great to adversity this season. I feel like we had a couple of rough spots and we didn’t handle success well at the start of the season. We lost to Central, won some big games in conference and lost two straight. We’ve grown and matured a lot this year as a unit.”

It’s easy to point to the two consecutive losses to North Park and North Central during a six-day period in late January and early February and the ensuing roster moves as the turning point of the Vikings season. Augustana coach Grey Giovanine moved his players around like chess pieces. He permanently moved junior Tayvian Johnson to the small forward position and junior Griffin Pils to the small forward position.

“We always believe that the next guy has to be ready,” junior Hunter Hill said. “That’s how we are wired. If you’re not playing well in practice, then coach is going to challenge you. Nobody takes it personally. We are a close-knit team this year. We hang out together and have gone through some tough battles. It’s been a fun season so far.”

Ryan and Hill took on bigger scoring roles.

Since then the Vikings (26-4 overall) have thrived, winning nine consecutive games heading into Friday’s national semifinal against Babson (29-2) at the Salem Civic Center (5:30 p.m. ET). UW-Stevens Point (25-5) battles Virginia Wesleyan (27-5) in the nightcap at 8 p.m. The two winners will meet for the Division III national championship Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

Long time coming

Augustana has never been to a Salem Final Four, last making the national semifinals in 1993. Here are the 44 schools that have been to the Final Four since the Vikings' last trip:

Alvernia; Amherst; Cabrini; Calvin; Carthage; Catholic; Connecticut College; Elizabethtown; Franklin and Marshall; Guilford; Gustavus Adolphus; Hampden-Sydney; Hope; Illinois Wesleyan; John Carroll; Lebanon Valley; Manchester; Mary Hardin-Baylor; Middlebury; MIT; Nebraska Wesleyan; North Central (Ill.); NYU; Ohio Northern; Otterbein; Randolph-Macon; Rochester; Rowan; Salem State; St. Thomas; Stockton; Trinity (Conn.); Ursinus; UW-Eau Claire; UW-Platteville; UW-Stevens Point; Virginia Wesleyan; Washington U.; Wilkes; William Paterson; Williams; Wittenberg; Wooster; York (Pa.).

Even before the two-game losing streak, the Vikings experienced some turbulence in the form of losing post player Kevin Schlitter for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament tear and another, Nic Hoepfner, for a month because of a concussion. At one point, Pils was demoted to the junior varsity team for two weeks during the season. Now, he’s a key cog in the Augustana machine.

“It’s a long season and we experienced our share of ups and downs,” Johnson said. “We really came together as a team and played the way we know how. We’ve all bought in 100 percent to the moves Coach made.

“For me, it was tough at first moving to a post position. I was hesitant at first, but playing that position, I knew our team needed that from me. It took me a couple games to get used to playing in the post. I’ve been working hard at learning the position and do what I’ve needed to do to become dangerous.

A closer forensic analysis of the Vikings success reveals that the foundation for this Final Four appearance was constructed in the summer of 2013 when they toured South America and competed in an exhibition game at Iowa. While in South America, the Vikings played the same exact teams that Division I Northern Iowa played during a recent visit there.

Those opportunities gave the Vikings the swagger they needed to beat Bradley. It gave them the confidence to overcome the tough injuries, setbacks and hurdles placed in their way.

“It’s just awesome to see all of our work come to fruition.” Johnson said. “We’re far from done. It speaks volumes about our team and how we were able to come together and put ourselves in this position.”

So when the Vikings, who earned one of the two tournament byes, were pushed to the limit in their second round game against DePauw, they knew they had the tools to survive and advance: Each other. Junior Jawan Straughter calmly converted two free throws with five seconds left and Augustana survived DePauw's attempt at a game-tying buzzer-beater to claim a thrilling 68-66 victory. The game featured seven ties and six lead changes.

Who will win the men's national title?
UW-Stevens Point
Virginia Wesleyan

The Vikings’ play improved in the sectionals. Bolstered by a fired-up home crowd, Ryan's career-high 26 points and eight rebounds led Augustana to an 82-69 win over Mount Union in the sectional semifinal. Augustana held the Purple Raiders to a season low in points, nearly 17 below their season average of 85.6 per game. 

The next night against Marietta in the sectional final, the Vikings achieved basketball perfection.

Augustana's defense was suffocating against the nation's 10th-best scoring offense (83.5 ppg), holding Marietta 15 points below its previous low this season.  The Pioneers shot just .286 from the floor — nearly 20 percentage points below their season average — and connected on just four of 23 (.174) 3-point attempts. Offensively, Augustana scorched the nets to the tune of .618 percent from the floor on 34 of 55 attempts. The Vikings also made an insane 13-of-18 from 3-point distance as 13 players hit the scoring column.

“It was a remarkable night,” Giovanine said. “There was a standing room only crowd and just about every guy who played for me was there. It was more of a celebration and a party than a game. It was just a festive and incredible atmosphere. To watch my players cut the nets down was as special as it gets. There was doubt when you struggle, but at the same time we never lost faith and continued to reassess what we can do. The players were open-minded and we hung together. That’s how you come through those tough times.”

Don't worry, Bradley. You're far from the only team Tayvian Johnson has dunked on this season.
Augustana athletics photos 

While the on-court scene was a memorable moment for all, the locker room scene will stick with the players for a long time. They understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The pride and bond they share with being a member of “Viking Nation” is special.

“It was wonderful after the game,” Ryan said. “It was probably the most packed I’ve seen our locker room since I’ve been here. There were so many alums there including ones that played in the national title game. To receive their congratulatory wishes meant a lot. They’ve experienced what we’re trying to achieve. It speaks to the family and the Viking Nation as we call it. You’re always part of it and always have people watching. We have a great support system in the community and our alumni.”

However, while the season has also featured plenty highlights, including lots of monster dunks from Johnson, Augustana understands that its journey isn’t complete even though it has reached its desired destination. The Vikings might miss a few shots, face a deficit, get into foul trouble and have things they can’t control go against them this weekend, but they won’t be flustered.

“Winning it all this weekend, would mean a lot to the entire program,” Ryan said. “We understand that our work isn’t done yet. We’re going to keep working as hard as we can to be ready to compete this weekend. I am not sure that there’s another college team in the country that’s as close as we are. No matter who it is, we’ll do anything for each other.”