AJ Range (SR/Junction City, Kan.) was getting nervous. Selections for three of the four 16-team quadrants in the NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship had been revealed but Range and his Kansas Wesleyan teammates weren’t among the chosen ones.
The Liston Quadrant was the last to be unveiled – the first four teams selected to play inside Hartman Arena in Park City. Oklahoma Wesleyan vs. Saint Katherine (Calif.) was the first pairing. Then came Indiana University-South Bend and the long-awaited announcement.
“The Titans will face the ninth seed, the Coyotes of Kansas Wesleyan,” the announcer, Brad Cygan of the NAIA Nation Office, said.
Applause, shouts of joy and relief, high fives, handshakes and hugs ensued among team members, coaches and others who gathered in the Student Activity Center on Thursday night to view the proceedings.
The Coyotes received an at-large berth to the 64-team NAIA field after finishing the regular season with a 22-10 record and reaching the semifinals of the KCAC Tournament against Oklahoma Wesleyan.
Ninth-seeded KWU and No. 8 IU-South Bend will play at 8 p.m. March 11 in Hartman Arena, the game preceded by OKWU and Saint Katherine at 6 p.m.
“All the nervousness and all that just went away because it was the last bracket that we got into,” said Range, who’s been an integral part of the program for five seasons. “It felt just so surreal that we’re actually in. It was like all the work that we put in had gone to waste but then we saw that. We’re the ninth seed so we’re in the middle of the pack of a really good bracket and it shows all the work pays off.”
The NAIA berth is the first for Wesleyan since the 2006-07 season when coach Tommy Desalme guided the Coyotes to the NAIA Division II tournament in Point Lookout, Mo. KWU defeated Bluefield (Va.) before losing to Northwestern (Iowa).
The university’s only other national tournament trip was in 1950.
The 2021-22 Coyotes (22-10) fell a game shy of getting to Hartman Arena for Monday’s Kansas Conference tournament championship when they lost to OKWU in the semifinals last Saturday in Bartlesville, Okla.
They wound up in Park City anyway.
“One way or another we got there and this one counts a lot more,” said Range, KWU’s starting post player the last four seasons.
Wesleyan coach Anthony Monson, who’s in his sixth season, was understandably thrilled.
“I’m happy for my guys,” he said. “They deserve this, they’ve worked their tails off and I’m so proud of everything they’ve done. Happy for everybody who’s played for me up to this point, they’ve all played a hand in this, too … they helped us get better and better.
“The program’s at a point where we’re getting some national respect and now we get to compete at the national level. While it’s not a conference championship or a tournament championship yet – we’re going to get there – this is a pretty special moment for this program.”
It will be the sixth trip to the NAIA tournament for Monson who played in two while at Tabor and was an assistant coach when the Bluejays qualified for three others.
This one is different, though.
“You always think you can do it and then you have to actually prove you can do it,” he said. “It’s been 15 years since this program’s done it … it’s really, really special for me right now.”
“I can’t say enough about Anthony Monson,” KWU director of athletics Steve Wilson said. “The job he has done to raise the level of this basketball program.”
Wilson appeared to enjoy himself as much as anyone.
“It will never get old getting to watch our student-athletes react the way they did,” he said. “I’m ashamed to say I’d known since noon (Thursday) so keeping the secret was fun and watching the guys’ genuine excitement was fun.
“Not many schools in the NAIA get to make the football playoffs and the basketball playoffs. That’s just part of the culture we’ve built, we’re doing many things the right way to set these students up for success and that will make you proud.”
The Coyotes’ task in Park City won’t be easy. 19th-ranked IU-South Bend is 25-6 after losing to Lincoln (Ill.) 67-64 in the semifinals of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament last Friday. The Titans were 19-3 in the CCAC and finished second behind Olivet Nazarene during the regular season.
“They only lost six games, they play in a good league, I know they shoot it really well – most Indiana teams do – so we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Monson said. “But we’re a really talented team too and we’re playing pretty well right now.
“At the end of the day whoever makes more shots is going to win the game. Luckily we get to play in a place that’s not too far from home and hopefully we’ll have a little bit of a crowd there to support us.”
The KWU-IU South Bend winner plays the OKWU-Saint Katherine winner March 12 in the second round in Hartman Arena at 6 p.m.
Four KCAC schools received NAIA berths. Bethel plays Briar Cliff next Thursday in Wichita while Southwestern plays Indiana Tech in Marion, Ind., also on Thursday.