Rine: Season Was One to Remember

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Quite obviously things didn’t work out the way West Liberty planned on Wednesday at the Bank of Kentucky Center. The Hilltoppers entered the NCAA Division II Elite Eight as prohibitive favorites to knock off unranked Stonehill (Mass.) College in the quarterfinals.

The Skyhawks withstood West Liberty’s vaunted pressure, won nearly all the battles and hung on for a 91-90 victory.

Perhaps what is overlooked though – what nobody outside of the Ohio Valley realizes – is the Hilltoppers were generally thought to be a year away from truly contending again. They lost nearly 6,000 points scored by four seniors from a team that didn’t lose until the national semifinals, so the thought was this might be a bit of a rebuilding season.

“Obviously you talk about that in the locker room,” West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said. “There will come a time in a week or so when hopefully we can look back and realize what a great season we had.

“We had only two losses in the regular season and won a conference championship in a very difficult conference, and followed that up with a conference tournament championship. Then we won a regional championship.

“All that stuff is incredible. You don’t feel it until the sting of this game goes away.”

That probably won’t happen for a while.

You don’t win 65 of 69 games by being soft. You do it, in part, by buying in completely both emotionally and mentally. The disappointment was written all over the faces of Alex Falk and Keene Cockburn, the two player representatives who sat at the postgame podium to answer all the “what went wrong” questions.

Those two guys, and undoubtedly every one of their teammates, don’t want to hear about what they accomplished, but they will in this space, anyway.

In complete disclosure, I had a talk with a colleague prior to an early season matchup with Findlay at the ASRC. We went back and forth about the Hilltoppers’ chances and I couldn’t help but think they would finish no better than third in the West Virginia Conference.

Shows what I know, right?

“It’s been a very encouraging season – almost like a miracle season,” Crutchfield said. “If someone would have told me we’d be sitting here with this kind of record, I would think you might be kidding.

“We had guys, some young guys that stepped up this year.”

Nothing is a given in sports, and the result of Wednesday’s game should be all the proof you need. But it stands to reason the Hilltoppers will be back for another run next season since they return everyone that played meaningful minutes and add the likes of redshirt freshmen Mike Lamberti, Bubby Goodwin and Marqez O’Neal to the fold. And there’s word circling that Crutchfield may have landed his best recruiting class to date.

All that is fine and dandy, the coach said. But nothing comes easy.

“We’re looking to develop our basketball players so we have a better basketball team next year,” Crutchfield said. “I can’t imagine winning a whole lot more games.

“But from my end, I want us to have a better basketball team. I want our guys to be better as individual players and I want them to function better as a team. I want us to execute everything we do offensively and defensively better, and I want us to be smarter.

“Let’s see where it takes us.”

So is next year the year?

“You can’t control the other teams,” Crutchfield said. “There could be other teams that come up with better teams than us next year. But we can only control our team.

“We had a great year and our team played great, but we want to be better next year.”

Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net