The Brigham Young-Hawaii men’s basketball team spent part of yesterday afternoon visiting DeBerry Elementary School in Springfield, Mass., talking about the importance of education with the children.
“A little community service,” head coach Ken Wagner termed it.
It was a nice gesture by a team there to play in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. And, after five days in Springfield, the Seasiders are probably beginning to feel like a part of the western Massachusetts community, where they have been awaiting tonight’s national quarterfinal game since Friday.
The NCAA gave the Seasiders (20-8) a disparate choice of itineraries — an early or a late arrival — for their game against Bloomfield (N.J). and to know BYUH’s NCAA tournament history is to understand some of why Wagner did not hesitate in grabbing the first flight offered.
After four consecutive years of elimination in the round of 16, the Seasiders weren’t about to leave anything for chance now. After more than a decade in D-II, BYUH was going to soak up all it could from the highest ascent by a Hawaii team in the tournament’s history.
For all the success Hawaii’s small-college teams experienced through a remarkable 11-year run in the NAIA — where Hawaii Pacific won the national championship (1993), BYUH had a third-place finish (’92) and Chaminade a fourth (’83) — reaching the upper levels of NCAA D-II thereafter has been a struggle.
In this the Seasiders have been the poster player. Their consistency in getting to the West region final has been laudatory just as their disappointment at being unable to go any further has been frequent.
“We had some great teams in the past that probably deserved to be there,” Wagner said. Two years ago, for example, the Seasiders were 25-1 and ranked No. 1 from preseason to the round of 16, where they lost on their home floor.
“We had an incredible team,” Wagner recalls. “We had size, speed, we had quickness and we had shooters … ”
Now, after those big buildups, here they are with an opportunity few had dared to imagine and a team that had seemed unlikely. Certainly nobody envisioned it in the regular-season opener four months ago, a game in which they trailed Cal State Dominguez Hills by 27 points (47-20) at halftime and lost 81-54.
“I can say it didn’t look very good back then,” Wagner said, dryly.
Or, when the Seasiders lost two close games at the end of the regular season to throw open to doubt whether they would even merit an at-large selection to the West regionals. But, finally healthy after a spate of ankle injuries, they found a rhythm and chemistry, roaring through as a seventh seed. Along the way they claimed Dominguez Hills as their opening-round victim, 83-76.
“I really thought our guys stepped it up when they needed to and played their best ball of the year,” Wagner said.
In 21 years of coaching at BYUH Wagner says where a team ends up is only part of the joy he’s taken from the job.
“Really, a lot of it is just being around a lot of successful kids,” Wagner said.
Which is, you suspect, another reason he and the Seasiders didn’t mind spending so much time together in Springfield.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.