By Gage Nutter
Charlie Brock paused and rubbed his chin for a moment as he searched for words.
“I’ve had 38 teams and I have never been prouder to be part of any team as I have been proud of this one.”
He sat between Andy McNulty and Jake Ross; a Dasani water bottle each at their left. Statistics from the game were in front of them, followed by a microphone.
McNulty – one of the team’s senior leaders – sat to Brock’s right. He sported a white Springfield College Basketball windbreaker, his No. 25 on his left sleeve.
McNulty’s shoulders were square. Face stoic. Hands in his lap. As Brock spoke to the media, he was static; mentally digesting what had just taken place, and the weeks leading up to it.
Ross – the team’s statistical leader, and one of the best players in Division III – sat to Brock’s left. He also wore a gray Springfield College Basketball windbreaker, demeanor and thoughts matching that of McNulty.
If only I made the extra pass. If only I made that free throw.
Springfield had just lost to Nebraska Wesleyan – the eventual national champions – in the national semifinals, 90-78, in overtime.
The team had gone from losing in the NEWMAC semifinals to WPI a few weeks prior, to coming one game short of a National Championship berth.
As McNulty and Ross sat by his side, Brock continued to speak to the media about the figurative roller coaster ride the team had been on the last few weeks.
“It was fun. It was a great run,” he said. “I hope we gave a whole lot of other people joy throughout the process as well. Sport is unique in that way. We feel sour about it right now, but the joy that came from the ride was second to none.”
Brock patrolled up and down half court in Blake Arena, observing the 20 men who hoped to call themselves Pride men’s basketball players by the end of the week.
Some faces were new; others had been through this grueling week before.
As Brock continued to pace, newcomer Cam Earle started warming up with a few three-pointers.
Earle came to Springfield after two seasons at Westfield State. He was highly touted coming out of high school for his ability to shoot the three-ball. Coming into his junior year of college, he hoped to rediscover his shot and get more playing time with the Pride.
Practicing three-pointers from the top of the key on the other end of the court, was Andy McNulty. He put together a heroic performance in the NEWMAC quarterfinals the year before and looked to continue leading the Pride’s young core in the right direction with a solid senior campaign.
On a hoop by himself was Jake Ross. He burst onto the scene the previous season as one of the best offensive players in the country, coupling his scoring ability with a defensive prowess that went under the radar. Coming into his sophomore year, he had a shot to put himself into the national player of the year conversation.
Walking from one end of the court to the other was Heath Post.
Post was dominant in the paint, both offensively and defensively as a freshman, while also showing an ability to occasionally shoot a three-pointer. On top of his ability on the court, his willingness to be vocal gave the team an edge.
Moving through dribbling drills in the corner of the gym was senior Brandon Eckles.
Eckles, like McNulty, had been a starter since his sophomore year. He’s a 6’7 center who can spread the floor. Eckles had experienced the NCAA tournament as a freshman, played on a socially disconnected team in his second season, and was named a captain as a junior.
He’d been around the block.
For the most part, Eckles never received the glory that he deserved for his play on the court for Springfield. But that’s fine with him.
“Winning cures all,” he said.
The Pride attacked the first four games of the season with force.
They earned a 4-0 record out of the gate, and started receiving votes in the national poll.
But once they started playing teams from the New England Small College Athletic Conference, coupled with a trip to play a few games in Texas, Springfield came crashing back down to earth.
The Pride lost five straight games in mid-December.
“I think our confidence was a little too high throughout the first four [games],” said Eckles.
After the losing skid, the team put together two straight victories to win the Naismith Classic; a four team invitational tournament hosted at Springfield College. The Pride defeated Thomas College in the semifinals and beat an elite Wesleyan squad in the finals.
However, the Pride were humbled once again.
After defeating Wesleyan, the team went to Wellesley to take on Babson College. The Pride lost by 23 points.
“I think that’s a situation that kinda exemplifies the team we were at that point,” said Eckles. “I’m not saying that’s [immaturity], but Brock called us immature in Texas. He said we needed to grow up. I think by the end of the year, we [did].”
Following the loss to Babson on Jan. 3, the Pride went on to win 12 of its next 13 games.
The Pride trailed, 37-35, at halftime in the NEWMAC semifinals against WPI.
Jake Ross had a routine 15 points and four rebounds at halftime. Cam Earle continued his emergence, chipping in with 10 points off of three three-pointers.
Springfield needed a good start to the second half to reclaim the momentum.
It didn’t happen.
The Engineers started the second half on a 11-5 run to push ahead, 48-40. But just like they had all season, the Pride continued to fight.
With less than a second remaining, the game was tied, 72-72. Springfield had the ball under the Engineers’ basket.
McNulty was tasked with inbounding the ball. Heath Post stood on the block with the Engineers’ Reid Walker defending him. The senior guard lofted a ball into the air for Post to potentially tip in. As he elevated, so did Walker. Post reached out for the ball, but Walker stuck his arm out to create seperation. As he did this, Post lost his balance in the air and came crashing back down to the floor.
No foul called. Overtime loomed.
At the end of overtime, with 23 seconds left, Springfield once again got the final shot.
A missed Cam Earle three-pointer was secured by Heath Post. He passed the ball to McNulty.
McNulty dribbled the ball around the three-point line and surveyed the court. As he did so, two Engineer defenders surrounded him and forced him into a corner. With defenders draped on top of him, McNulty threw a bounce-pass into the paint that was intended for Post.
Instead of landing in Post’s hands, the ball fell securely into the hands of Walker.
After pausing for a moment, Walker took off down court with the ball until he was fouled with five seconds to go.
Walker went one for two at the line to end the game, and maybe, the Pride’s season.
“I knew we had a good chance of getting an at-large bid [into the national tournament], but our goal was to win the NEWMAC title,” said Eckles. ”We put ourselves in the best position possible by winning the regular season title. It was a punch to the gut when we lost.”
The game looked like it could have been the last for McNulty, Eckles, and Ben Diamond.
“To win a regular season NEWMAC championship is something that can’t be taken away,” said Brock after the game regarding the seniors’ impact on the program. “It is a tremendous achievement and it is a body of work.”
If their season ended with just a NEWMAC regular season title, that on its own would have been enough to leave a legacy.
“They have definitely put a stamp on [the program].”
The team knew following the NEWMAC semifinals loss that they had a decent shot of making the national tournament, but nothing was guaranteed. After sitting in limbo for two days and literally biting their fingernails in anticipation, the tournament selection show started.
Eventually, there was one matchup left on the board. The second-to-last school was announced.
It was down to the last squad.
“And the final team, in this year’s field, is Springfield.”
The room erupted.
But that excitement quickly turned into focused determination. Now they had a job to do.
After practicing that evening, the players were called into a conference room for a meeting with Springfield’s esteemed men’s volleyball coach, Charlie Sullivan. He had the team close their eyes and vividly imagine themselves in the national championship. After the team had immersed themselves into it, he had them open their eyes. He asked them to tell him what words and emotions they felt during the exercise.
A few terms came to mind:
With these terms, and a few others, the team compiled, what Sullivan called, their “List.”
For every team Sullivan has ever coached, he has done the same exercise with his players.
“Whenever you deviate from this list, remind yourself what is on it and keep that focus,” Sullivan told the team.
His presence with the team throughout the tournament run played a big role on the team’s psyche.
“That kept us motivated,” said Eckles on Sullivan’s mental exercises. “I think we just took that and ran with it.”
The month of March was wild.
Springfield edged past Albright in the first round of the tournament thanks to clutch free throws from Ross and Post down the stretch. The team defeated Cabrini the following day due to a program record-tying 13 three-point field goals. The following Saturday included potentially the biggest shot in Springfield College history when McNulty hit a three-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. The following day, The Pride held Swarthmore to just 22 points in the second half of the sectional finals to earn a trip to the national semifinals in Salem, Va., for the first time in program history.
“It was a blur,” said Eckles on the Pride’s historic run. “Cam Earle and I were just saying the other day, ‘Did March even happen?’”
With the field getting smaller and smaller, the Pride started to sense that the ultimate team goal was possible.
“When we got out of the Swarthmore pod I thought we had a real chance of doing this,” said McNulty. “They were very good. Really tall and athletic. Once we got by them we knew we were only a game away from going to Salem.”
Springfield made it all the way to Virginia, and were greeted by Nebraska Wesleyan.
The Prairie Wolves came into the national semifinals with a record of 28-3 and had five players that averaged double-figures in scoring on their roster.
With a minute left in regulation, the Pride led by five points. McNulty walked to the free throw line for a one-and-one.
He missed the first. Prairie Wolves ball.
“I think about the game every day.” – Brandon Eckles on the national semifinals loss.
Nebraska Wesleyan’s Ryan Garver was fouled the following possession and went to the line for two. He made both to cut the lead to three. Two seconds later, Garver fouled Jake Ross. He went to the line for a one-and-one.
He missed. Prairie Wolves ball.
With 35 seconds left, Garver made a layup to cut the lead to 73-72. On the following play, Eckles was called for a foul. Garver went to the line and made another shot.
The Pride held for the final shot, but didn’t get a good look. The team was sixty seconds away from a national championship berth, but now they were headed to overtime.
The Prairie Wolves dominated in the five minute period; outscoring the Pride 17-5.
“I think about the game every day,” said Eckles. “But so many people didn’t expect us to be there, and being there as a group and everyone playing well the whole run was satisfying. A guy from the class of 1968 saw me in the Union [the other day]. He shook my hand and said ‘We saw your run. Congratulations. It was so fun to watch.’”
The strenuous preparation schedule that the national tournament demanded kept the team from realizing the impact that they were making.
“I don’t think we realized the ripple effect of our run because we were in it.”
Just the beginning
Brock stood at center court of Blake Arena, just like he did during tryouts five months prior. Only this time, he had a podium, and an audience in front of him.
To his right sat a group of young men that provided him and the Springfield College community with moments and memories that will last a lifetime. The Pride men’s basketball team.
The gathering was put together to honor Springfield for its historic accomplishment of making the national semifinals for the first time in the college’s history.
Brock used his time at the podium to thank those in attendance and the people who worked hard behind the scenes to make the season possible.
As he wrapped up his speech. He made one final remark.
“So, as to our trip to the Final Four, look out.”
Brock raised his eyes and looked intently to the crowd of parents, friends, and students that had supported the program since the first day of tryouts in November, all the way to the final buzzer in the national semifinals.
“Because, to me, that was just practice.”