By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor (A column from the Feb. 9 HDN)
All that was missing was a trophy, freshly printed hats and Tshirts and maybe a little, well, let’s just call it sparkling spumante.
There was a true championship feeling in Phillips Arena early Saturday evening. Charger players were vindicated, coaches were elated, the pep band played long and strong and students rushed the court in jubilation following Hillsdale’s upset of Grand Valley.
The only thing absent, was well, a championship — the tangible, historically recordable type at least.
Not like it mattered in the least though, because as head coach John Tharp said, these are the kind of wins programs are built on and senior guard Keith MacKenzie, who played Division I ball at Oakland for two years, said it’s the best feeling he’s had since high school hoops.
A championship vibe was in the fans voices, in the music bumping and blaring from the Hillsdale locker room post game and in the goofy smiles of young men that went perfectly with the honking horns and random “wooo-hooos” outside the sports complex. I could feel it and it was something no real sports fan could just shake off.
Some coaches, Tharp being one of them, say, “success is a journey” and the road is paved with lessons and disappointments, and that’s exactly what made Saturday’s thrilling victory so meaningful.
When Tharp arrived on campus in 2007 he had a mere three players left on the roster but that was hardly a deterrent from his vision. And sure, it helped that Tony Gugino and Tim Homan were two-thirds of the leftovers and guard Keith MacKenzie chose to transfer to the D-II level after two seasons at Division I Oakland University.
Early on it was a feel good story as the Chargers began the 2007-08 season 10-5 and fair or not, expectations started to be placed on the team.
Just in time to see the Chargers lose six of eight, all in conference play. Just in time to see them plummet back into the middle of mediocrity.
They would play great basketball for 30 minutes, but not 40. And Tony Gugino and Tim Homan provided ample scoring, but too few rebounds and too many turnovers combined for an unpleasant number of 80-something to 70-something losses.
The Chargers ended the season a respectable 14-14, but went only 7-10 in the GLIAC and lost to Findlay and Grand Valley a combined four times by an average of almost 19 points.
It was only year one of Tharp’s vision, but when it was up it was really up and when it was down, it was plain hard to swallow.
Fast forward to October 2008 and Tharp was raring to go, with a stockpile of promising recruits, including point guard Tyler Gerber and forward Brad Guinane, two guys who looked like they could contribute immediately.
And they did just that and all was right in Charger nation.
Tony G was showcasing his improved defensive skills, Luke Laser was bringing a boost off the bench after transferring in from Saginaw Valley State and Hillsdale jumped out to a 5-1 start, including a win over Lewis who was a tournament qualifier in 2008.
Then it took just 20 minutes in a home game against Findlay on Dec. 18 to bring the program back to earth.
The No. 1 Findlay Oilers shredded the Charger defense and ran and dunked their way to a 40-21 halftime lead in a game they went on to win 7056.
It was just one game, but it the beginning of a disheartening trend. Just like the season before the Chargers started having trouble putting together complete games, instead only showing flashes of brilliance.
Two days later Grand Valley smoked Hillsdale by 22 in Allendale and two weeks after that Findlay routed them by 23 in Ohio.
To make matters worse the Chargers then lost leads and eventually games in overtime to Northwood and Wayne State, games they needed to win if they were going to flex their muscles in the conference.
It got to the point in the middle of January that Gugino was so fed up with things that he let his emotions take control and lashed out at teammates during a timeout in a very public, visible manner in the Chargers’ home loss to Michigan Tech.
Tharp benched Gugino to start the next contest, a lesson learned and point well taken. So now, to have won five out of six games and just beaten one of the finest programs in all of Division II athletics in front of a wildly enthusiastic home crowd was a decisive step in the planned direction.
It gave the players and coaches something to tell the world about, and it reminded me that sometimes the most triumphant moments in life are preceded with less than perfect ones.
The players were embracing their head coach with words of thanks and congratulations and months upon months of frustration all exploded with proclamations of victory, all because the journey toward success made the already sweet moment even sweeter.
Tharp summed it up best when describing what Saturday’s win meant to the program.
“It’s a great day to be a Charger, it’s a great day to go toe-to-toe with one of the giants, with a team who has won who knows how many trophies. And here, at little Hillsdale College, we went out there and did this and I’m proud to be a part of this.”
I was just proud to take it all in — as a certain championship feeling swept through my body and soul.