|Volume 31, Issue 6
||November 12, 2004
(Above) Photo courtesy of the Globe GazetteNIACC's 1994-95 squad included (front row, L-R) Ryan Tucker, Gavin Sandvig, Cory Thorson, Jade Watson, Grant Townsell, Andy Klemesrud. (Back row) Ausery Washington, Paul Rowenhorst, Steve Abbott, Ryan Pippett, Paul Bruns, Kenyatta Burton.|
(Below) Photo courtesy of the Globe GazetteNIACC fans and the team celebrate after defeating Iowa Lakes to win the Region XI basketball championship and advance to nationals.
NIACC celebrates ten-year anniversary of national men's basketball championship
At a school where the men's basketball program is the longest athletic tradition, one team stands apart from the rest.
The 1994-95 NIACC men's basketball team had something no other NIACC men's program to date has had, the honor of being called National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Champions.
That season, out of nowhere it seemed, the NIACC Trojans captured that elusive glory.
Coming off of a 20-12 season in which NIACC averaged 86 points per game, with a roster filled with six freshmen, six sophomores and a second-year head coach in Dan Mason, the Trojans had lofty goals.
"I remember that we were very optimistic during the preseason," Mason said. "We had a team that was very deep and had the ability to guard and I also liked that our big guys were versatile."
Preseason practices were intense and with a head coach positioning his team to achieve its goal of winning the regional tournament and go to nationals, Mason had to hope that his group of freshmen jelled with his sophomores on the court.
Newcomers Andy Klemesrud and Ryan Pippett, both all-staters out of high school, led the freshman class that joined a group of sophomores that included Paul Bruns, Gavin "Sarge" Sandvig, Grant Townsell, Cory Thorson, Ausery Washington and Jade Watson, who was coming off of major knee surgery in the off-season.
Chemistry would be just what NIACC would discover in its pre-Christmas portion of the schedule, going 10-4 overall, with a perfect 4-0 Iowa Juco Conference mark heading into the second semester.
"Coach Mason and the rest of the coaching staff did a great job of preparing us for games and recognizing what we needed to do to win each game," Thorson said.
Unfortunately, the chemistry would be disrupted. Three NIACC players were ruled ineligible for the second half of the season.
NIACC would now be without their services for the rest of the season. Thorson, along with teammates, were forced to sit down and re-evaluate who they were as a team.
"To be honest, we missed those guys. They were some of our most valuable players," Thorson said.
Thorson's father and former prep basketball coach, Merlyn Thorson ,described how Mason must have felt.
"Not only did Coach Mason lose some of his best players, but two of his leaders as well. He had to feel very dejected," Merlyn Thorson said.
Present NIACC men's basketball coach Steve Krafcisin, a good friend of Mason, agreed with Thorson's assessment.
"Dan's team had such high expectations early. To go through those growing pains were hard on him and the rest of the team," Krafcisin said.
Growing pains indeed are what Mason felt.
"I thought we were down the tubes," Mason said. "The players helped the coaches, as they were eager to do what was needed in order to be successful and going through those tough times made us stronger."
Their departure showed up on the hardwood as NIACC took the court after the break.
"If I remember correctly, we didn't necessarily play that great to start the second half of the season, but as we got a few games under our belt, playing together with the new roster, we began to feel very comfortable," Thorson said.
NIACC would bounce back and finish 8-8 in the second half overall, with a 6-6 Iowa Juco Conference mark for an overall record of 18-12 and 10-6 in conference play.
After overcoming such adversity, the team became well balanced and closer together. Just finishing the regular season could have been considered an accomplishment in itself.
"We had a great group of guys who absolutely loved to play the game of basketball. We all played the game with great emotion, especially when we knew the other team was a little more talented on paper once we lost some of our sophomore leaders," Thorson said.
Fellow teammate Andy Klemesrud agreed with Thorson.
"We learned as a team that basketball isn't just a game of talent, but a game of working hard, being able to fill specific roles and have the desire and the willingness to go that extra mile," Klemesrud said.
Local media such as Bob Fenske, who covered the Trojans for the Globe Gazette at the time, and Chris Frenz, broadcaster at KGLO radio, both thought the growth the team displayed was purely amazing.
"It was amazing to watch a team come together the way they did," Frenz said. "Some players were put into unfamiliar roles, but they bought into Mason's system."
"It was amazing to cover a team like this one," Fenske said. "Grant Townsell went from a third-team point guard as a freshman to playing 38 minutes a game the second half of his sophomore season."
Adversity was one thing, but what was about to happen was what many will remember.
The season seemed to be slipping away, with NIACC trailing by 15 points in the second half to Kirkwood, when the pride of the Trojans came back to earn a hard fought victory.
NIACC escaped with a 74-73 win in its Region XI tournament opener and advanced to play rival Waldorf College the following day.
The comeback kids were at it again. This time trailing by 20 points to Waldorf at one point, NIACC claimed an 87-74 victory in the Region XI semifinals.
The win moved the Trojans (20-12) within one victory of a berth in the NJCAA Division II national tournament. They awaited the daunting task that lay ahead in the fourth-ranked Iowa Lakes team who posted a 28-4 mark.
Was there ever any doubt? Not for NIACC. The Trojans defeated the Lakers from Iowa Lakes 83-75 for the Region XI men's basketball championship.
In a season full of challenges, the next step would be the most challenging yet. The Trojans headed to Danville, Illinois, the site of the NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball National Championship.
It was a dream season, a dream that was still very much alive, and the Trojans, especially the sophomores, would not let it die.
Sporting a record of 21-12, Mason's team now consisted of four sophomores and six freshmen, with the addition of Roman Hodoway.
First up for the Trojans in their quest was the Alfred (New York) State Pioneers, sporting a record of 21-10.
Paul Bruns, Ryan Pippett and Grant Townsell carried the offensive load scoring 63 of NIACC's 78 points, and NIACC's swarming defense held off the Pioneers 78-66.
The win moved NIACC into the semifinals where they would meet the Allegheny County of Pennsylvania Cougars.
Thorson, meanwhile, could see for the first time that the championship was within reach.
"I don't think any of us knew exactly how good we were until we played in that first round game in the National Tournament. After we won that first one and saw some of the other teams play, we realized that we had a shot at winning it all," Thorson said.
Realization was only two steps away.
Sporting a 27-6 record, Allegheny would be no pushover for the Trojans (22-12). Rallying from a first half deficit of 10 points, NIACC (23-12) beat Allegheny 80-74 to earn a berth in the National Championship game against the 27-5 Raiders from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It would end with the sweetest taste, the ultimate dream accomplished. NIACC (24-12) defeated Grand Rapids 64-63 with a baseline jumper with 3.4 seconds left by Grant Townsell.
The NIACC men's team was the NJCAA Division II National Champions for 1995. Paul Bruns was the National Tournament MVP and Ryan Pippett made the All Tournament Team.
Players and families alike were in a sense of disbelief and happiness. Merlyn Thorson described his feelings following the event.
"Not only were my wife Sue and I happy for our child, Cory, but for the team as well. They had to overcome distractions at midseason to band together and fight for their pride. It is the ultimate feeling," Thorson said.
The ultimate feeling indeed. Thorson described the feelings of his coach on this day.
"I know he was very happy and proud of everyone. I think it was especially rewarding for Coach Mason because our team had so many ups and downs throughout the season and to end up with a National Championship made the bumpy ride all worth while," Thorson said.
What made the National Championship team at NIACC so special is not only that it accomplished what the team did, but how the team dealt with adversity, how it jelled new faces with the veterans, and how the roles of every team member became redefined in the absence of others.
Steve Krafcisin described how leadership played an important role on the National Championship team.
"The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores," Krafcisin said, quoting the late Al McGuire.
Looking back and seeing what the team accomplished, Thorson can only smile.
"I'm pretty sure that at times we all look back and are happy with what we accomplished as a team and we smile when we think about it, but I am willing to bet that many of us have had even greater things happen since NIACC (marriage, children, careers, etc.)," Thorson said.
Jim Valvano, prior to his death, said, "Don't ever give up."
The 1994-95 NIACC National Championship team was living proof of this.
Coach, players work for goal
(Above) Photo courtesy of the Thorson familyNIACC teammates and roomates on the national title team included (left) Cory Thorson and Andy Klemesrud.|
(Below) Photo courtesy
of the Globe GazetteNIACC Coach Dan Mason plans his strategy.
Many coaches spend countless hours studying and evaluating the game of basketball, trying to implement the right system to fit their team.
But it is the players who must execute the system put in place, and determine whether the team ends up with a championship trophy at the end of a season.
During the 1994-95 basketball season, the NIACC men's basketball team proved that Coach Dan Mason's system would be the perfect fit and that the players' ultimate dream could be accomplished because of the guidance of one man.
Two players, Andy Klemesrud and Cory Thorson, were two members of that team, but both felt admiration for their coach and appreciated him for what he not only taught them on the basketball court, but in life as well.
"Coach understood us each individually and was a great teacher and motivator," Klemesrud said. "He showed us the value of a team effort, brought us closer together as friends and proved that basketball isn't just a game of talent, but about willingness and desire."
Thorson meanwhile said he felt that Mason did a great job of preparing the team and recognized what they needed to do to win each game.
"Coach taught us to play with great emotion, and showed us that if we were willing to do a lot of the not-so-glamorous things it takes to win games, we could succeed," Thorson said.
The admiration was felt not only from the side of the players, but from the coach as well.
"I can't say enough about that team," Mason said. "We received contributions all across the board, with each player contributing in different ways on different nights. Some contributed in practice, some in games, some on defense, some on the boards and some on offense."
Thorson and Klemesrud both agreed that they couldn't be happier than accomplishing what they did for Mason and his staff.
"It was especially rewarding to see Coach Mason accomplish what he did," Thorson said. "I know he was happy and proud of everyone and I can't think of a man more deserving of that trophy, especially with all we dealt with as a team that season."
Klemesrud took a different approach, focusing on what Mason brought to the North Iowa community.
"Coach made me realize that good things happen to good people," Klemesrud said. "He was a reflection of the community, very embracing and compassionate. He simply deserved that National Championship more than any one of us."
Mason said it was a blessing to have been in the position he was in as coach of the 1994-95 team and said it was an honor to have worked with his two incredible assistants, Randall Herbst and Paul Anderson.
Knowing how his players thank him for their dream season and what he taught them in life, Mason had this to say about his players that he regarded as part of his family.
"I'm truly humbled," Mason said. "I am very respectful of those guys. It's awesome to hear that from any of my 'family' members."
Media remembers tourney excitement
Photo courtesy of the Thorson family
Cory Thorson talks with media after the Trojans semi-final win in Danville, Illinois.
Captivating. Amazing. Surreal.
These are just a few of the words that local media members Bob Fenske, formerly a sportswriter for the Globe Gazette in Mason City and current editor of the Forest City Summit in Forest City, and Chris Frenz, of KGLO radio in Mason City, used to describe NIACC's National Championship team of 1994-95.
Rooming together while in Danville, Illinois, the two men shared memories of the Trojans capturing that elusive glory.
"I will never forget that team," Fenske said. "I have been covering sports for a long time, and never have covered a team like the National Championship basketball team at NIACC."
His counterpart, Frenz, remembers that NIACC was not the most talented team, but they proved they belonged in Danville.
"They were always loose, never uptight once arriving in Danville," Frenz said. "They bought into Coach Mason's system throughout the year and were in Danville to win it all."
Frenz stated how the Trojans, consisting of all Iowa players, did what they needed to do to jell at just the right time.
"They weren't the flashiest of the eight teams that were in Danville," Frenz said. "But they showed the rest of the country the talent level of basketball players in the state of Iowa, and made a strong statement that if you play as a team rather than a bunch of individuals, you can accomplish your dreams."
Meanwhile, Fenske remembered what it was like covering the championship game.
"It was just a surreal feeling watching that game," Fenske said. "I tried to treat that game like any normal game, unbiased as a good writer should be, but being in Danville to witness a good friend of mine in Dan Mason get the most out of his team, and capture that National Championship, just left me without words."
Frenz has his memories as well, remembering in full detail the final field goal of the championship game and his call of Grant Townsell's baseline jumper with 3.4 seconds left that fans across North Iowa remember to this day.
"I remember Townsell's shot hitting the front of the rim and bouncing around before finally going in," Frenz said. "Every once in awhile I go back and listen to that call on tape to fully recapture what I felt that Saturday in March of 1995."
It was a moment that neither will ever forget, a moment that they kept talking about throughout the long trip, until reaching Mason City, the home of the new National Champions, around seven o'clock Sunday morning without any sleep.
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