By Murray Evans
WINONA LAKE, Ind. (March 12, 2013) – For an agonizing 24 hours last weekend, the Oklahoma Christian Eagles had to wait, their destiny taken out of their hands with a loss in the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region semifinals.
Finally, the good news came – the Eagles had received an at-large bid to the NCCAA Championship, which will start Wednesday at the Orthopaedic Capital Center. Third-seeded OC (17-11) will face No. 6 seed Spring Arbor (Mich.) at 1:45 p.m. and rarely have the Eagles been so grateful to return to the basketball court.
It sure beats checking in the gear, which was the alternative.
“We just want to play,” OC senior Devan White said, succinctly summarizing the attitude of the Eagles heading into their first NCCAA Championship appearance – which is will be their 12th national-tournament trip, with the others coming when OC was a member of the NAIA.
The NCCAA event looks a lot like recent NAIA tournaments. Four schools in the NCAA Division II membership process are in the field, including top-seeded Fresno Pacific (Calif.), Shorter (Ga.) and OC, along with newly minted NCAA Division II member Cedarville (Ohio).
“We feel we got a breath of fresh air,” OC coach Dan Hays said. “We’ve got an experienced team and we’re trying to take advantage of the situation. “
Somewhat lost in the hoopla surrounding the Eagles’ trip to the Hoosier State is that their coach, Dan Hays, is on the verge of a major milestone. OC’s next win will be the 700th of Hays’ storied career.
Hays, in his 30th season at OC after five seasons at Northwestern Oklahoma State, would join only three other coaches who have worked in Oklahoma in the 700-win club – Willie Holley of Mid-America Christian and two College Basketball Hall of Famers – Henry Iba and Eddie Sutton, who both coached at Oklahoma State.
Hays said he was unaware he was so close to the milestone until he was informed by an OC staff member. He hadn’t even mentioned it to his wife, who didn’t know how close he was to 700 until she was told last weekend.
“I’ve never mentioned it to the team,” Hays said. “I don’t keep track of that stuff. But that would be nice. That shows longevity and I’m proud of it. I don’t hang my hat on wins and losses, but there are not a lot of people who have done that, so I don’t take it lightly. When it happens, I’ll be happy – I’m not going to lie. That is some good company.”
Spring Arbor (22-10) finished tied for fourth in the NAIA Division II Crossroads League. The Cougars lost to Taylor (Ind.) 70-62 in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament, then beat Cincinnati Christian (Ohio) 79-71 in a one-game NCCAA Midwest Region playoff to qualify for the NCCAA Championship.
Spring Arbor has three players with double-figure scoring averages. Senior guard Chris Bellamy leads the Cougars with an 18.8-point average and ranks eighth in NAIA Division II in steals per game (2.47). Junior guard Rob Hogans averages 17.6 points per game and senior forward Matt Howe averages 11.3 points per game.
The Cougars rank high in NAIA Division II in several categories, including free-throw percentage (74.6 percent) and 17th in blocked shots per game (3.66) and scoring defense (64.8 points per game). Senior guard Matt Van Pelt ranks eighth in NAIA Division II in assists per game (5.3).
Ryan Cottingham is in his 14th season as Spring Arbor’s head coach. He has guided the Cougars to 20-win seasons in six of the last seven campaigns. Under Cottingham, Spring Arbor won NCCAA titles in 2005 and 2006 and was the NCCAA runner-up in 2009 and 2011.
While the Cougars’ style of play and tendencies are a bit of a mystery – OC and Spring Arbor shared no common opponents this season and the teams never before have met – Hays said that’s not too big of a concern.
“There are just so many things someone can do to you,” Hays said. “I’m sure they will be able to get more info on us than we can on them. We’re operating blind, but you just hope that fundamentally you’re good enough. We will play good enough defense and take care of the ball. Teams will make us shoot the ball from the outside, so we have to shoot better.”
Hays figures Spring Arbor, like most OC opponents, will focus its defensive efforts on stopping OC’s 6-foot-10 senior center, Will Reinke. The first-team All-Heartland Conference and All-NCCAA Central Region selection entered the postseason 12th in the NCCAA scoring (19.2 points per game), fourth in rebounding (9.8 per game), fifth in blocked shots per game (2.64) and 16th in field-goal percentage (57.4 percent).
In his most recent game, Reinke narrowly missed what would have been the second triple-double in the history of OC’s program. He finished with 26 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocked shots in OC’s 89-87 regional semifinal loss to Mid-America Christian, matching his career highs in the latter two categories.
Reinke has 1,467 career points in his three seasons, ranking him 21st in school history. OC is guaranteed three games in the NCCAA tournament – as it’s played out to third, fifth and seventh place – so he figures to move past new OC Athletic Hall of Famer Mike Gipson (1,472 points from 1962-1966) and possibly Devan Nightengale (1,528 points from 1999-2002).
It’s been a long road this season for the Eagles, who will have played in six states and three time zones as of Wednesday. Hays said he and his players are grateful for the reward of the national tournament at the end of the journey.
“This is a good bunch and they’ve handled the situation well,” Hays said. “Now all we’ve got to do is go out and play.”