Waiting game for Falcon Basketball

NCAA Basketball tournament adjusted for COVID, selections announced March 7

Daniel Newman, Sports Editor

The Men’s Basketball Team played a home game on Saturday against Central Washington University, winning with a final score of 92-74. (Sydney Lorton)

Sports fans everywhere turn their TV channels on and set their streaming services to the Division I games for the three weeks of March Madness, but the Division II and III schools also hold tournaments, which mean just as much to those that take part in them.

“It shows that you accomplished something. It’s given you a reward for the work that you’ve put in in the season,” men’s basketball head coach Grant Leep said.

This year, it was decided that the Division II field will be trimmed from 64 teams to 48. Six teams from eight regions will make it to the tournament.

The Falcons remain in the West region, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the region looks different than usual. Since the California Collegiate Athletic Association are not playing any games this year, they have been replaced by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Most of its teams are from Colorado.

Six total teams from the GNAC, RMAC, and the Pacific West Conference will compete in the regional tournament in Golden, Colorado on the men’s side, and Grand Junction, Colorado on the women’s side.

There are approximately 27 teams eligible for these six spots. The men’s basketball team is second in the GNAC (7-3) behind Northwest Nazarene (10-1). Four teams from the Western Region are ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation. Northwest Nazarene is one of them, and the other three are Colorado School of Mines (13-1), Colorado Mesa (16-1) and Point Loma Nazarene (6-1).

This leaves the Falcons in a battle for two spots, and other contenders include Biola (6-3), Hawai’i Hilo (6-1) and Metropolitan State University of Denver (8-6). Only games against Division II opponents count for tournament consideration, leaving the Falcons on the outside as of now, as their record stands at 4-1 against division II opponents this season.

“We are seriously just focusing on one game at a time, and there’s nothing more we can do than that. It’s been such a challenge for us to find division II opponents, with how many of them in our conference are not playing… These games are all now, they’re really big for us,” said Leep.

This Falcon squad returns many players from last year’s team, but are still learning to gel together. Some of the returning players have not played much this year due to injury, allowing younger members of the team to get experience. According to Leep, some of these players have not played since March, 2019, but are now beginning to hit their stride.

Whatever happens, Leep is proud of the determination the team has shown this season.

One of the Central Washington University coaches places their team players’ numbers on the socially distanced seating during warm-up. This is one of many COVID-19 safety precautions, keeping the player’s health in mind as they compete. (Sydney Lorton)

“I just have appreciated how our group has handled all the craziness from playing in the midst of all this stuff with COVID, so I just really commend the decisions and effort that our group has made to get us to this point,” Leep said.

The women’s basketball team has played the most games in the conference with 12, and have the best overall record in the conference at 7-5, a big step up from their 8-20 record last season.

“Thankfulness is one of our core values in our program, so we always talk about, win or lose, there’s something we can learn and be thankful for,” women’s basketball head coach Mike Simonson said.

Unfortunately, while the GNAC is struggling, the RMAC and PWC are thriving, with eleven combined teams having winning records. While the tournament is something that the team wants to achieve, it is not the main goal of the season.

“I think if you focus on the end goal too much, of trying to play postseason, that can really wear on you and can have some negative effects, so I think our team has done a great job staying present this season,” Simonson said.

The Women’s team has hit their stride recently, winning four of their last six games. They feature juniors like Ashley Alter, Natalie Hoff and Rachel Berg, who spent most of their Freshman and Sophomore seasons as starters on losing Falcon teams, but it is the experience that is pushing them to victory.

“Having players that have been in our program for two, three years, it really gives confidence to those players when they’re on the court, that they can take and make shots and they know they’ve been in certain situations before,” Simonson said.

Even if neither Falcon squad makes the tournament, it will be interesting to see how it plays out with the new format. Simonson and Leep will also be keeping their eyes on whatever happens come March, as they are familiar with most of the players and coaches from the Universities competing in the Western region.