Throughout the recently completed season, Chapman junior forward Justin Riley blogged about the Panthers’ historic run. His final entry recounts the Panthers’ tournament experience and offers thoughts on the special bond he had with this year’s teammates.
We thank Justin for his thoughtful, well written entries throughout this season. And he was just as good on the court, picking up All Independent Player of Year honors. He’ll be back for his senior season at Chapman this fall, and we hope he’ll chronicle it for us.
On October 15, a group of guys entered the gym with one thing on their minds: getting the chance to prove himself on the big stage. Practices, games and teammates came and went, but the passion to take Chapman to the postseason for the first time in 26 years burned on.
After concluding the season with a 23-2 record, some positive thoughts filtered through my head:
1. We were ranked in the D3 Hoops Top 25 Poll for all 13 weeks.
2. We had a 17-1 in-region record.
3. We defeated NCAA Division II opponent BYU-Hawaii (ranked 18th at the time).
4. We ended the season on a 13-game winning streak (23.7 scoring margin during streak).
On the other hand, some negative thoughts filtered through as well:
1. Our strength of schedule was weak (no surprise), 392 out of 407.
2. We didn’t have any standout Division III wins, losing to our one real test: Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
3. We hadn’t played a team with a winning percentage above .500 since December.
4. And of course, Chapman hadn’t made the tourney since moving to Division III in 1994.
Once all of these thoughts made their way in and out, I still wasn’t sure if we were going to make it. As an avid board reader, it looked like we were very likely to get a Pool B bid, but I couldn’t convince myself for certain; setting myself up for heartbreak was a pain I wanted to avoid. On Monday morning, five of us met at a teammate’s house to watch the selection show hoping that we would see our name in the bracket for the first time. The show started…we waited…we waited…and then, history happened.
WE MADE IT!!
If just making it to the tourney wasn’t good enough, finding out we were hosting Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the first round was the cherry on top. Going in to this game, we knew it was going to be a 40-minute battle. CMS is a well coached, hard nosed team that prides itself on toughness and defense. The practices leading up to the game were very physical and competitive.
At 7:00 PM on March 4, the battle began. The environment was incredible with almost 2000 people in attendance; the Chapman student body covered the entire west side of the gym in white, while roughly 100 CMS students stood across cheering in their respective school colors. CMS jumped out quickly, but we were able to close the gap and fight back-and-forth for the remainder of the first half. Just before halftime, Griffin Ramme hit a buzzer beater three-pointer in the corner to give us a three point advantage going into the locker room.
The second half started similar to the first with CMS jumping out quickly. Once again, we were able to battle back and seize the lead for the final six minutes of the game and capture the victory 58-47. When the buzzer sounded, the gym erupted and the students stormed the court. Words cannot express how I immediately felt, but it was a moment that I will never forget. After the game, the CMS coaching staff and players showed tremendous sportsmanship and wished us well against Whitworth.
The next morning we were up at 4:00 AM to head to the airport to catch a flight to Spokane, Washington. Waking up that early after a physical game didn’t lead to a very comfortable flight, but when we arrived at our hotel, I had no problem taking advantage of the five-hour window to sleep before our evening practice. At practice, we broke down our scouting report and prepared ourselves for another battle Saturday night.
When we arrived to the gym Saturday night, we were very focused and determined to upset Whitworth on their home court. Prior to the game, our coach emphasized that if we came out slow, it would be a long and hard battle back. And that it was. Whitworth came out firing as we found ourselves down 21-6 with 10 minutes to play in the first half. We were able to battle back and close the gap heading into the break trailing 32-26.
The second half mirrored the first as Whitworth expanded the lead to double digits in the opening minutes. We fought hard to close the gap, but were unsuccessful at getting any closer than six points the remainder of the game. Nate Montgomery and Eric Beal did an outstanding job on both ends of the court leading them to a 21-point victory.
Silence filled the locker room as all of us realized that our historic season had come to an end. As players changed and left the locker room, the four guys that started alongside of me every game for the past two seasons—Dan Aguilar, Jared Kaiser, Griffin Ramme and Kyle Wood—sat there in silence. Tears immediately streamed down our eyes as we embraced each other in the locker room for one last time. Though Griffin and I have one more year of eligibility, the camaraderie the five of us shared is something special. I am grateful I had the opportunity to help Chapman make the postseason tournament for the first time in 26 years, but I am more grateful that I was able to share it with this group of guys.
To Dan, Jared and Kyle: thank you for a memorable year.