Despite Saturday’s heartbreaking loss, it was an amazing weekend in Salem. A few highlights / memories …
- Other than one brief stretch during which they lost their collective composure, Friday night’s performance against Guilford was masterful. Troy Whittington and Joe Geoghegan gamely battled Guilford’s all-American center all night long despite being outsized, egregiously so in Troy’s case. Troy repeatedly scored over his bigger defender, announcing his presence on the national stage with authority (more on this later). But really, it was a story of an unreal shooting day by a ridiculously good shooting team. Schultz, Rubin, and Wang all drained three after three, many from beyond 24 feet. From what I understand, the Ephs’ 16 made threes (out of only 28 attempts!) set a D-III Final Four record. And the Ephs drained all of their free throws down the stretch. Frosh Nate Robertson had a particularly impressive game on the big stage … if he works hard and continues to improve, he will be a star for the next three years, after playing a supporting role this season. Blake Schultz not only led the team on offense, but chased Guilford’s other star, Clay Henson, all over the court and limited his effectiveness. Henson lit up Saturday’s all star game for 35 points, driving home just how amazing Schultz played on both ends Friday. Unfortunately, the vast amount of energy he expended clearly took a toll, with a fast turnaround before an early afternoon Saturday game. (Again, more on this later).
- The turnout by Eph fans was truly remarkable. Despite being the last day of midterms week and the start of Spring break, Eph fans outnumbered and outcheered their Guilford counterparts, even though Guilford was only two hours away. And the diversity of fans on hand was amazing: many former players, including half of the 2003 title team roster, Coach Paulsen, alumni, players’ families, former players’ families, faculty, current students, Billsville locals ranging from about five to probably 75 years of age, future players and a good-sized group of college staff all made the ten hour trek. Although WSP had the largest group of fans in attendance, that is a school with 10,000 students and a similarly disproportional alumni base.
- Friday night, the college hosted a great local reception for all the fans in attendance. It was great to get to know, both Friday night and elsewhere during the weekend, some members of the vast community of loyal Eph fans. The players received a tremendous ovation when they arrived on site. And by the way, to a man, the team couldn’t be a nicer, more modest group of guys. They seemed truly appreciative of all the fan support, as did Coach Maker, who is likewise as nice a guy as you could ask for (he missed the reception due to media responsibilities). Of course, there was no rest for the weary, as the Ephs were, by team rules, required to study Saturday morning prior to the big game!
- Saturday’s all-star game didn’t include any Ephs because of their participation in the title tilt, but was fun nonetheless. Among Clay Henson’s 35 points was an easy three which was the product of an accidental assist from usual-teammate Sanborn (they were placed on opposite teams), much to Sanborn’s chagrin and Henson’s delight. As this game demonstrated, there is a LOT of talent in D-3.
- Saturday’s title tilt was of course a heartbreaker. Derek did a great job chronicling the emotional ups and downs. I really thought the Ephs were going to take the title home, but once WSP’s run started, as Coach Maker recognized, the Ephs just didn’t have enough left in the tank … some of the stars were visibly tired from playing two VERY tough, VERY physical teams within the scope of 20 hours, and most of the top guys rarely saw the bench. The late threes that Schultz came up just a bit short on, for example, he makes every time if he hadn’t spent 75 prior minutes playing his guts out on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, WSP just kept throwing out fresh, big bodies, all of whom could play great D, disciplined offense, and hit open shots. Very tough team, and ultimately I think their depth, physicality and balance was just a bit too much for the Ephs. The game featured, despite the loss, an absolute exhibition by Troy Whittington. His talents are breathtaking to behold in person. It is unlikely Eph fans will ever see another player like him — you almost never do anywhere in D-III — so they best enjoy his senior year. Fans of the opposing teams were visibly awed at some of his insanely athletic made shots, dunks, boards, and blocks (including some absolutely gravity defying plays where he would block or alter a shot and somehow collect the rebound to boot), but what is really impressive is how he has developed into an intelligent passer with tremendous post moves and touch inside. He should easily be an all-American if he stays healthy next year, and is arguably the best returning center in Division III.
- Speaking of all-Americans, congrats to Blake Schultz (first team) and James Wang (fourth) for being named all-Americans. I’d say Wang is the second best sophomore I’ve ever seen play for Williams, narrowly edged by Mike Nogelo ’98. Wang is one of only two underclassmen on the all-American teams, and, as such, has a very bright future. What’s amazing is that Wang barely saw the court until very late last season — his improvement has been astronomical, and was probably the single biggest reason Williams improved so dramatically from last season.
- My fan group was heartbroken leaving Salem, but at least our feelings were assuaged by a gorgeous detour through land very reminiscent of a trip through the Berkshires (complete with driving through Amherst, VA), after our navigator took us on an unexpected one hour detour in our (ultimately successful, thankfully) pursuit of a Chick-fil-A. After what seemed like hours of driving, I personally devoured an inhuman amount of food, and probably came the closest I ever have to the look of ultimate satisfaction featured in the conclusion of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. If only NPH had made an appearance …
- The Ephs looked absolutely devastated by the loss; they really poured their hearts out, tough to watch. You could tell the idea of losing this game never entered their minds. But looking back, they will remember this amazing and really, totally unexpected (at season’s start) run to the title game, and they can proud that they left their heart and soul on the floor, but came up just a tiny bit short against a team just as talented and well-coached as they are. This great article from noted sports writer John Feinstein sums up the players’ emotions after the tough loss.
- Although the incredible seven-man senior class will be impossible to replace, I expect the Ephs, hardened by this championship run, to be very strong again next season. Fans can look forward to the return of Wang, Whittington, Robertson and Harlan Dodson, a very strong core that will be bolstered by hungry young players like Brian Emerson, James Klemm, and some talented incoming recruits. Hopefully the fan momentum from this season carries over into next November, when both the men’s and women’s teams should be among the teams to beat in New England. Go Ephs!