Insider: The beginning of the end

Justin RileyChapman forward Justin Riley joins us for a second season as a blogger, after a year in which he helped lead the Panthers to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. His first blog post of the season follows.

It was a sunny spring day when I first walked onto Chapman University’s campus. I had informed the head coach the previous day that I would be coming to play open gym with the team. As I roamed the campus looking for the coach’s office, I had a feeling that the coaching staff didn’t care too much that I was coming. No one was there to greet me when I arrived; no one picked up my phone calls. Nothing.

Eventually, I asked a random student where the coach’s offices were and luckily he pointed me in the right direction. On the walk there, the uneasiness I felt turned into anger. For the first time in my basketball career, I felt that I didn’t really matter. After 15 minutes of searching, asking, and wondering where the coach was, I finally found an assistant coach and headed to the gym. As I was preparing to lace up my shoes and take the court, the head coach walked in with a recruit and his parents.

At that moment my feelings were reaffirmed—I didn’t really matter.

I took the court with an added sense of motivation to prove not only to myself, but to the coaching staff, that I was the best player in that gym.

And not to my surprise, the coaching staff agreed. And the rest is history!

Three and half years later, I stand toe-to-toe with my teammate of eight years, Griffin Ramme, ready to lead Chapman University to another successful season and NCAA Division III tournament bid. At the end of last season, we had our doubts of how good we would be. Graduating three seniors, two of whom were four-year starters, is not an easy reality to overcome, yet we remained optimistic. Individual workouts, weightlifting sessions, adult league games and basketball camps filled up the summer; but an uneasy feeling of our team’s future still loomed.

School started.

Open gym started.

Our team would be composed of those who showed up at the gym every afternoon at 1:00 to showcase their “new and improved” abilities, myself included.

With over a month of intense 5-on-5 games and team practices rapidly approaching, I still wasn’t convinced that we could duplicate last season’s performance.

October 15 was here.

There was nothing more anyone could do. The countless hours spent in the gym boiled down to this very moment: practice.

Practice, practice, and more practice.

Was my senior season going to be a memorable one filled with great experiences, or a year of rebuilding highlighted with struggle and tough defeats? I can’t answer this question in its entirety, but I can confidently say that the once uneasy feeling dancing in my stomach no longer exists. After the first few days of practice, it was clear there was more talent in the gym compared to last year. And the only thing missing was exactly that: practice.

Three weeks into my senior campaign, we stand with a 6-1 record, with our only loss coming to last year’s NAIA Division 1 runner up, Azusa Pacific University. This past weekend, we claimed the Lee Fulmer Tournament Championship for the second consecutive season, defeating Redlands in the finals. December marks a crucial month for us as we have six Division III games, five of which are against teams in the West region.

I never realized how quickly four seasons would go by, but as a co-captain and senior leader, I am excited for this final collegiate journey I will take with my teammates and only hope that we remain positive, practice hard, and stay focused on our goal to have the opportunity to play again in March.

A memorable one

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.


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.

Insider: The four best years of my life

For Cabrini’s senior class, it’s been a tumultuous four years, with two coaching changes and a five-win season on their record. But the Cavaliers turned it on this year in a big way, entering the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 20 and sporting a 25-2 record. For forward Chris Blake, Cabrini is a long way from home in San Francisco, but it’s been, as he put it, the four best years of his life. His thoughts entering this weekend’s NCAA Tournament are below:

Chris BlakeI will never forget my introduction to college basketball. In 2006 Cabrini opened up its season against the No. 2 in Division III hoops of that year, Wooster College. From the start, Wooster dominated the game; in fact to this day I have still never seen a better shooting performance by a team. They made an unbelievable 25 three pointers in 45 attempts, crushing their school record and sending our team home with the first of 20 losses for the season.

After the game the team went back to the hotel and while watching a prerecorded broadcast of our game on television the Fighting Scots’ announcer jeeringly remarked “I don’t know what the weather is like in Radnor, but it’s raining tonight in Wooster.” I knew then and there that no matter what level of college basketball you play when things are going good they’re going good and when they’re bad, they’re real bad.

​From the start I understood that Division III basketball was extremely competitive and only with hard work and team unity would a program find success. My first season at Cabrini was a roller coaster with more ups and downs than any team should ever go through. For me I was just excited to be a part of the Cabrini program. I didn’t know if I would ever have the opportunity to play at the college level and just being a member of the team was a great feeling. However, by the end of the season the excitement and passion I had for the game was slipping away.

Losing games is never easy, but what was most upsetting was the entire operation. The entire program needed a change. After the last day of the season the coach who had recruited me from California was let go and I seriously doubted myself and whether I wanted to play basketball in the future.

​Cabrini basketball has a great legacy and has produced many championship teams. But when I walked around campus and told people I was on the basketball team they looked at me and said, “Oh well you guys aren’t any good are you?”

This was hard to handle.

When a new coach was hired I hoped for the best, I hoped our team could improve. Not that wins were everything but that we could at least come together and find a team bond. We did just that and our win count improved to 12.

​I was on my way to study abroad in Spain. Awaiting the airline attendant to check my bags in JFK, my phone buzzed, I had a message. I listened to the message, and I could not believe it. Our coach whom had helped us improve was leaving for another college. I walked on the plane and forgot about everything. Basketball was over for me then and there.

​October 15, 2008 came, the first day of practice my junior year. I ran up and down the court for about ten minutes before I had to stop and throw up. The new coaching staff was highly unimpressed. They knew I hadn’t given anything to my conditioning in the offseason, for someone who was now an upperclassman, this way no way of showing an example for the others on the team.

​However, I stuck with it and to my delight our team was turning everything around. We were winning games, coming together and starting to put the Cabrini program back on the map. The season came to an end and although we failed to win a championship, losing to Gwynedd-Mercy College in the championship game, we all knew that if we came together the next year we would be team to beat.

​The past season at Cabrini has been one I will never forget. One thing you learn in playing a sport in college is that not one season is ever the same. You can never forecast how a new group of individuals will come together and play.

I knew in the offseason that our team had improved with many new faces, but I did not know how much the additions would influence our team in a positive way. Although my playing time dropped, as long as I was contributing on a winning team is all I could ever ask for. We had our best year at Cabrini during my four year tenure and the light at the end of the tunnel finally shown through when I climbed the top of the ladder to cut down a piece of the championship net. All was worthwhile. My mind was at peace. We had reached our goal.

​I decided to write this not to inform others about my playing days at Cabrini, but to send a message that it’s worth committing yourself to something, even though there are many times we doubt ourselves and we feel like quitting, if you hold on with all you’ve got and work hard, I believe all of us can accomplish their goals. I would have never been able to stick with basketball if I did not have the support of my family, friends and teammates. Without the encouragement of my coaches, fans, and the entire community, my dreams would have vanquished a long time ago.

​In a few hours my team will depart for the NCAA Tournament. This is a feat I never dreamed possible. No matter what happens in the tournament, I’m very proud of my team. I feel very honored and humbled to have ever worn the Cabrini jersey on my back.

​At the end of the day, it is not about the wins and losses or who scores the most points. What I will remember for the rest of my life are the bus rides to and from games, the feeling I had in my stomach the moment I woke up on a big game day, and the high fives my teammates and I gave one another in warm up lines. I am so fortunate to have been a Cabrini Cavalier. I will support this program for the rest of my life.

Thanks again to all of those who made this possible for me. Without you I would have never had the courage to be here in the first place.

Insider: March at last

Holly Harvey, a junior guard for Illinois Wesleyan, checks in as her Titans get set to host Franklin in the first round of the NCAA tournament. She has lots of reasons to enjoy March and is hoping to add another big one on March 20.

I have always looked forward to the month of March. My birthday is on the 10th and what kid wouldn’t anticipate the one day a year when it’s all about them and they get showered with gifts? Now that I am older and a little more mature March holds my anticipation for a number of other reasons. Our spring break always falls the week of St. Patrick’s Day (another reason to be a fan of March) and I find myself counting down the days to it after the final week of February was filled with tests and papers. These days I also owe my love for this month to college basketball.

I log some of my longest hours of watching TV in March because I try and catch as much of the Division I NCAA tournaments as possible. It’s convenient that the opening days of the tournaments fall during spring break so I do not have to worry about whether or not I’d be able to drag myself away from the TV to go to class. Since I have been at Illinois Wesleyan the highlight of my March has been the Division III NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

All three of my years we have gotten the automatic bid from the CCIW. We are excited to begin our journey in the NCAA Tournament at our Shirk Center as we are a host for the first two rounds. We have Franklin College in our first game and if we are successful we will face either Simpson College or the University of Chicago. We are familiar with Chicago as we faced them at their place in December and won by 7. Just as we are starting our NCAA journey at Shirk we are hoping to end it there.

We have known for a while now that we are hosting the Final Four. It has been pretty hard to not look forward to those games and see ourselves playing for a national championship on our home court. When we find ourselves daydreaming about being in the Final Four we snap out of it and realize the games leading up to it will not just be handed to us because we are hosting. Every team we might face made the tournament for a reason and will challenge us to perform at our best.

We’ve been working hard all season for these important challenges that are about to come our way. I am confident that we are ready and have the potential to do some amazing things in the tournament. We are just going to take it one game at a time and not look past any of our opponents. Hopefully everything works out for us and March 2010 will be one of the most memorable months of my life.

Madness before March

Justin Riley, forward for No. 13 Chapman, has been blogging for us throughout the Panthers season. This week he discusses the scheduling difficulties of being an island on an island. The only Division III conference within driving distance is the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) of which Chapman isn’t a member.


What comes to mind when you hear about this school? Location…academics…enrollment size…women…athletics?



Enrollment size…maybe.

Women…strong maybe.

Athletics…of course not.

Why would you think about athletics when thinking of Chapman? Why would ANY athlete choose a school that is not affiliated with a conference? In fact, why do athletes even go to Chapman when they know the chances of making the post-season aren’t very high?

These questions were the exact ones that circled my mind when deciding to attend Chapman, yet I still decided to come here.

Did the location of the school influence my decision? Yes.

Did academics influence my decision? Yes.

Did enrollment size influence my decision? Yes.

Did the women influence my decision? Yes.

Did choosing a school that had a basketball program that never made a post-season appearance influence my decision? Yes.

I decided to come to Chapman on all these accords, but there was nothing more important to me than having the opportunity to be part of a team that had the chance to make school history and earn the first ever post-season bid for the men’s basketball program. Upon my arrival, I quickly learned that earning a post-season bid wasn’t very easy to come by. After a 20-7 campaign my freshman year, we were left sitting on the couch reading who was doing what. Honestly, I didn’t feel that we truly deserved a bid due to key losses against La Verne and Redlands. I accepted it and moved on.

Sophomore year, we wanted to shake off another boring March and improve upon our record. With a starting group of three juniors and two sophomores, we finished the season 24-3, yet we still found ourselves sitting on the couch again. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why we didn’t get the bid, so I decided to do some research to find out why we weren’t “good” enough to make the post-season. After reading through various board postings, blogs and other articles, I found out how important the strength of schedule is in the selection process. After finding this information out, I looked up our strength of schedule numbers based upon our opponents winning percentage (OWP) and opponents opponents winning percentage (OOWP) and found Chapman had the third easiest schedule in Division III. Frustrated about this statistic, I threw my hands up and accepted that with such an easy schedule and three in-region losses to Whitman, Whitworth, and UDallas, we probably weren’t the most deserving team of a Pool B bid.

But then I started to think: why was our strength of schedule so weak? There wasn’t much difference in the teams we played from the year before to now, so why was there such a disparity?

Answer: It’s simple—Chapman is left with very slim pickings of teams who are willing to play them once conference play starts. Since there are only two other Division III opponents in California that aren’t in the SCIAC, we are forced to play UC Santa Cruz and La Sierra multiple times. Unfortunately, UC Santa Cruz and La Sierra haven’t had the most successful seasons over the past years, which has lead to a decrease in our strength of schedule numbers.

Now we are left with the ultimate question: Why not stop scheduling La Sierra and UC Santa Cruz so much, and play better west region teams?

Answer: WE WANT TO!

Problem: Once conference play starts, we are left with those two teams and other meaningless, in terms of a post-season bid, games against NAIA and NCCAA opponents. Of course we would like to play all the SCIAC schools twice a year, but the reality is, they don’t want to play us. Can you blame them? If I were a coach, why would I play a non-conference game during the midst of conference play to help out another team? What if a player gets injured? What if we lose? Will our team morale be affected? Yes, playing us will increase their strength of schedule and give them another west region game, but at the same time, focusing a team’s energy on a non-conference opponent during conference play might not be the best idea. Some may agree with this statement while others will disagree, but the reality is come conference time, teams do not want to play us, PERIOD.

So what is the solution? I wish I had the magic potion to sprinkle on the heads of the SCIAC to let us in or to at least schedule us during conference play, but the truth is, I don’t. Knowing these statistics, should we fill up our November and December schedule with tougher opponents? Maybe. Should we try and compete in tournaments that feature these opponents? Maybe. Should we stop complaining when year after year we find ourselves not playing in March? Maybe. There are many questions that are left unanswered, but one thing I am confident about is that Chapman is a strong force in not only the West, but in all of Division III. Our schedule may not match up with other top teams in America, but once again, I am confident that we have the talent to compete with any team. I only have one more year of eligibility after this season, but I promise I will not be satisfied until we get the opportunity to shine in March.

To everyone who mocks our schedule, doubts our abilities, or just downright doesn’t like us…thank you!

The more you doubt, the more motivated we become!