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A Dream comes true
By Jeff Febus

 

As fireworks exploded and confetti rained down on his jubilant teammates, Calvin College senior Aaron Winkle sank to his knees and bent his face to the Salem Civic Center floor, overcome with emotion.

For Winkle and his teammates, the just-completed 79-74 victory over Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the NCAA Division III national championship game was the fulfillment of a dream that for years appeared to be just that - a dream.

When Winkle and fellow senior Nate Karsten arrived on the Calvin campus in the fall of 1996, they were greeted by another pair of newcomers -- first-year head coach Kevin Vande Streek and assistant coach Chris Fear. Together, the quartet would be looking to find its own niche in a Calvin men's basketball program steeped in tradition and success. With the 1992 national championship banner hanging from the Calvin Fieldhouse rafters, they didn't need to look far for reminders.

"When you come to Calvin to play basketball, you're reminded pretty quickly of the past success," said Winkle before the start of his senior campaign. "The bar that the 1992 team set is very high but I would not have it any other way. It makes you set your goal as the highest goal."

But for the first three years of Winkle's career, the goal appeared to be out of reach. Injuries, suspensions, last-second shots that rimmed out for Calvin and last-second shots that went in for the opposition combined to keep Calvin out of the NCAA III Tournament.

Nevertheless, the 1999 season would prove to be a stepping-stone for Calvin as the Knights captured their first MIAA title since 1994 but were stung by a last-second loss to Defiance in the semifinals of the 1999 MIAA Tournament. Calvin committed itself to making things different in 2000. More importantly, the Knights refused to let go of their dreams of a national championship.

"There's a real sense of 'let's do it now' because each game and practice is the last time around for me," said Winkle. "We've got high goals for this year's team and one of them is to win a national championship. We intend to reach those goals."

Aiding the national championship dreams of the Knights were a pair of high-impact freshmen in 6-6 forward Jeremy Veenstra and 6-0 point guard Bryan Foltice. Both players came in with All-State credentials and a tradition of playing on winning teams at their respective high schools, Kalamazoo Christian and Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian

It would not take long for either player to make his mark. In a season-opening tournament at Wheaton College (IL), Veenstra posted back-to-back double-digit performances in scoring and rebounding and joined Winkle on the all-tournament team as Calvin captured the championship of the tournament. Two weeks later, Calvin registered a 90-77 victory over Division II rival Ferris State with Foltice popping in a career-high 14 points off the bench including seven in a two-minute span in the second half to break the game open.

Fueled by the senior leadership of Karsten and Winkle, the Knights won their first eight games of the year including the championship of the Old Kent Classic held Thanksgiving Weekend at the Van Andel Arena.

Calvin's first two defeats of the year came over Christmas vacation in Southern California as the Knights were topped by nationally-ranked NAIA Divison I foes Biola (CA) and Azusa-Pacific (CA). The loss to Biola was a 72-65 overtime affair while the loss to Azusa-Pacific was a 90-81 decision that Calvin led at halftime only to see the host Cougars come roaring back for the win in the second half behind UCLA transfer Kevin Daley.

With a league-opening date with Defiance only days away, Calvin's season could have gone on the skids in California but instead it only got stronger. Unity was built on the first morning of the Southern California trip as the entire team sang a hymn up front in a pair of Sunday morning services at Calvary CRC of Chino Hills. Winkle shared a message he had given at a Calvin chapel that fall. Fighting jet-lag and only five hours of sleep, the Calvin team could have slogged through the services but instead they shined. "I don't know good this team will be at the end of the year but I can honestly say that this is the finest group of Christian young men that I have ever coached," said Vande Streek repeatedly throughout the year. A day at Disneyland together and a trip to Ontario Christian High School would also build camaraderie.

In the conference opener against Defiance, the Knights flashed signs of things to come as they blew out the Yellow Jackets 104-74 behind a torrid shooting performance. Calvin raced through the MIAA schedule with a 14-0 record, becoming just the second team in MIAA history to do so. Delicious highlights of the MIAA regular season campaign included a 78-68 victory at the Holland Civic Center over Hope, and then an 82-80 overtime triumph over the Flying Dutchmen in the return meeting at the Calvin Fieldhouse. The January victory was Calvin's first over Hope at the Civic Center since 1994. Foltice helped lead a comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit with 17 points off the bench, including 14 in the second half, allowing the freshman to move into a starter's role on a permanent basis. NBC reporter Tim Russert would later announce the score on his Sunday morning television program "Meet the Press," fulfilling a promise he had made at the Republican Presidential debate at Calvin the week before. The February meeting at the Calvin Fieldhouse would prove to be even more dramatic as the Knights used a banked three-point shot from Winkle with five seconds left in regulation to send the contest into overtime. Winkle would lead the Knights in victory with 22 points and eight rebounds.

After struggling through a 79-73 first round victory over Alma in the MIAA Tournament, Calvin turned on the jets, handing Albion its worst defeat of the year with a 78-59 victory in the semifinals and then knocking off Defiance in the championship game 95-82 in front of more than 4,000 fans at the Calvin Fieldhouse. The victory over the Yellow Jackets was sweet as it made amends for the 1999 MIAA Tourney defeat and allowed the Knights to finish 17-0 against MIAA competition, becoming the first team in league history to accomplish the feat. The victory over Defiance also gave the Knights an automatic bid to the NCAA III Tournament, marking Calvin's first NCAA III Tournament appearance since 1995 and also the first for the entire Calvin roster and coaching staff.

Calvin's success throughout the season was due in part to more than just a handful of individuals. All five of Calvin starters would earn MIAA Player of the Week honors at least once during the year as Karsten and Winkle would receive the award twice while Foltice, Veenstra and junior center Brian Krosschell were so honored once, marking just the second time in Calvin history that all five of its starters earned MIAA Player of the Week accolades. The only other Calvin team to do so? The 1992 national championship team of course. In addition, Winkle was named the MIAA's MVP for the second straight season and was joined on the All-MIAA first team by Veenstra, while Karsten was an All-MIAA second team selection.

Bench play was also crucial to Calvin's success. Three-point shooting from junior guard Jason DeKuiper gave the Knights a boost all year long, while junior post players Josh Tubergen and Derek Kleinheksel gave Calvin one of the deepest and most talented front-lines in the nation. Tubergen thrilled Calvin fans with swooping dunks and blocked shots, while Kleinheksel connected on nearly 60 percent of his field goal attempts, often scoring with a signature jump-hook or a feathery baseline jump shot. Sophomore Jon Potvin started at the point guard slot through the first 14 games and then willingly accepted a backup role the second half of the year. His ability to fill a key role off the bench would prove to be critical in the NCAA III Tournament.

The leader of Calvin's bench brigade was unquestionably junior guard Nate Burgess. An All-State football player at South Christian High School, Burgess was often just as rugged on the basketball court, establishing a reputation as Calvin's top defensive player. Burgess proved he could also score, tossing in a career-high 20 points in a 91-83 victory over Division II Grand Valley State in the Old Kent Classic.

Ironically, Burgess's impact was most evident in one of his lowest scoring games of the year, a 92-90 overtime victory over Franklin of Indiana in Calvin's first NCAA III Tournament game. Franklin came into the second round tournament contest as a decided underdog against the Knights who had risen to the number-one spot in the final Division III national rankings. But with five savvy seniors in its starting lineup, the Grizzlies shot the lights out and had the Knights on the brink of tournament elimination late in regulation. Clutch play by Winkle allowed the Knights to send the contest into overtime and then take a 90-87 lead with less then 20 seconds left in overtime. Franklin's determined group of "Hoosiers" refused to give up, sinking a long three-point shot with 16 seconds left to tie the game, setting up a dramatic finish. With time ticking down, Veenstra put a jump shot near the free throw line that bounced off the rim. Out of nowhere came the 5-11 Burgess and with a gigantic leap, outjumped a taller defender to tip in Veenstra's miss with just 3.6 seconds left. The tip-in by Burgess would prove to be the game winner. It was also his only basket of the evening. When asked about the play after the game, Burgess smiled and said, "For me personally, it was a relief. I felt like I had an off night."

The victory over Franklin set up a power-packed sectional at the Calvin Fieldhouse the following weekend as the Knights were joined in the four-team field by third-ranked Wooster of Ohio and fourth-ranked McMurry of Texas. Calvin displayed its championship form, defeating Wooster 82-53 and McMurry 115-79 on successive evenings in front of jam-packed Fieldhouse crowds. Calvin's win over Wooster was keyed by a tenacious defensive effort. The Knights would then use their offensive power the following night, solving McMurry's relentless full-court pressure defense midway through the first half after falling behind early 22-13. Calvin would end the half with 14 unanswered points to vault into a 64-44 halftime lead. DeKuiper capped off the first half flurry with a three-point shot just before the halftime buzzer, sending the capacity crowd of 4,500 fans into an uproar that threatened to blow the roof off the Calvin Fieldhouse.

Calvin cruised to the victory with Winkle leading the way with a game-high 30 points. "Everything about Calvin is national championship caliber," said McMurry coach Ron Holmes after the Calvin win. "The team, the fans, even the pep-band leader. It would be a shame if they didn't win it all."

Calvin would not disappoint Holmes or the nearly 2,000 Calvin fans who journeyed to Salem the following weekend as the Knights nipped Franklin & Marshall (PA) 79-77 in the national semifinals and then defeated Eau Claire in the championship game. Foltice was the hero in the win over Franklin & Marshall, dribbling the length of the court with 6.4 seconds left in regulation and flipping in a running jump shot from 10-feet out at the buzzer to give the Knights the victory. When asked by a reporter after the game if he knew of any freshman who could make a shot like that, Vande Streek grinned and said: "I know one!"

Foltice would be unavailable down the stretch against Eau Claire, however, as he was forced to the sidelines early in the second half with a painful hip pointer injury. Potvin would step in ably in his place though and provide steady leadership at the point guard slot in the final 10 minutes against a furious comeback effort by Eau Claire. Calvin led 48-32 at halftime of the championship tilt but the Blugolds roared back, cutting the deficit to one point at 73-72 with just 3:06 left to play.

The Knights did not panic. Veenstra was the first to step up, connecting on a clutch jump shot with two-and-half minutes left to put Calvin up 75-72. A steal and a pair of free throws by Karsten with 1:21 left gave the Knights a five-point lead. After an Eau Claire bucket, Krosschell would take a turn as hero, rattling in the second of two free throw attempts with 41 ticks left to give the Knights a 78-74 lead. Just a 35 percent free throw shooter during the season, Krosschell would connect on 7-of-9 free throw attempts in the championship game. Karsten would add an additional free throw in the closing seconds and when a long three-point shot by the Blugolds bounced off the rim at the buzzer, the celebration was on.

Tears, hugs, hand-shakes and shouts of joy were plentiful on the Salem Civic Center floor, but none were relished more than those exchanged between Karsten, Winkle, Fear and Vande Streek who had endured the ups-and-downs of the previous four years.

"It's a dream come true in all aspects," said Winkle. "When I came to Calvin four years ago I wrote down my goals on a piece of paper and one of those goals was to win a national championship...It's an incredible experience to commit to something with your coaching staff and your teammates and to give everything you have into that. To see it all come true is something special that's hard to describe."

Karsten echoed Winkle's thoughts and also thanked the Calvin crowd for its supports. "It's been a long road. You could not script it any better," he said. "The support we received from our fans, particulary our student-body was second-to-none. They were a big part of our season."

For Vande Streek, Calvin's national championship represented another niche in its rich tradition of men's basketball. "When you're hired as the men's basketball coach at Calvin you feel a part of the tradition which is a neat thing," said Vande Streek. "But now to say that you've put a little niche in the tradition is a special feeling."

The national championship was the fourth in Calvin athletic history including the third in the last two years, joining the national crowns captured by the women's cross country team in 1998 and 1999 in addition to the title won by the 1992 men's basketball team.

Winkle and Veenstra were voted to the Final Four All-Tournament Team. Winkle would later be named a first team All-American by the National Association of Basketball Coaches as well as the NABC Division III Player of the Year. In earning National Player of the Year honors, Winkle joined 1993 graduate Steve Honderd as one of two players in Calvin men's basketball history to receive the award.

At a post-season celebration rally in front of nearly 2,000 fans at the Calvin Fieldhouse, Winkle reflected on the season after driving back with Karsten to Grand Rapids from a spring break trip to Arizona. "Thirty-one hours on the road is a lot of time for reflection," he said. "Of the 356 teams that played Division III basketball this year, Nate and I are the only two seniors who can say they ended their careers as a national champion. What a gift from God."

Vande Streek also received numerous post-season awards including Division III Coach of the Year honors from the NABC, becoming the fourth coach in Calvin athletic history to earn National Coach of the Year honors. A Waupun, Wisconsin native, Vande Streek is now 175-107 in 10 years of collegiate coaching including 82-27 in four years at Calvin.

Although the national championship was a wonderful accomplishment it was not the culmination in Vande Streek's tenure at Calvin. "I certainly don't want to diminish being a national champion because I understand that may never come again," said Vande Streek in the post-game press conference following the national championship game. "The culmination for me was having this group of guys. They are outstanding Christian young men. They have lived it on the floor, off the floor, in relationship with people they have met, even this weekend. That to me is what a Christian institution basketball team is supposed to be all about and the wins are icing on the cake."

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