Rine: Can’t Host? We’ll Hoist

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. – It was more than a little shocking to most in the Ohio Valley when the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional parings were released a little more than a week ago. Coming off a 63-60 loss to Charleston in the Mountain East Conference Tournament championship, the general consensus was that West Liberty’s resume was still head and shoulders above that of once-beaten East Stroudsburg of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

The committee though, didn’t see it that way and gave the Warriors the right to play host to the regional at their raucous Koehler Fieldhouse, marking the first time in five years it didn’t reside at the Hilltoppers’ ASRC.

A nearly six-hour drive, six days in a hotel and three tougher-than-nails victories later, West Liberty proved what was known all along – it was the better team.

The Toppers may not have gotten to play host, but nobody – not even the now 30-2 Warriors – could prevent them from hoisting the trophy for a record fourth straight season. WLU ended ESU’s 20-game unbeaten streak at home this season, and in doing so became the first road team to oust a host on its home floor since the inception of the Atlantic Regional, which is a span of 20 games.

“They had a great record and a great season and I didn’t argue the fact that we played here. They deserved to host it,” said West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield, who improved his record to 15-5 in Atlantic Regional action, and 270-48 overall. “It’s kind of a little bit of inspiration in saying we can win on the road too.

“We’ve been a good road team.”

Have they ever.

There were many who suggested West Liberty had earned its three straight crowns by virtue of not having had to leave home to win any of them. While it’s true the Hilltoppers are a remarkable 61-2 at the ASRC in the last four seasons, they are also 48-3 on the road.

If you know Crutchfield, you realize he’s a politically correct kind of guy, and the type of respect his program has gained nationally not only for the work it does on the court, but also off it, is a reflection of that. He wouldn’t outwardly admit to any extra satisfaction, so his players did it politely for him.

“You get on the road in our conference and you have the Charlestons and the Fairmonts, but this place is special,” said Cedric Harris, whose list of awards includes MEC and Atlantic Region Player of the Year, as well as regional tournament Most Valuable Player. “The feeling you get when somebody else is against you, it’s an unbelievable thing and it sends chills down my spine.

“The crowd was rocking and there was a lot on the line – it’s win or go home. This environment was beautiful.”

The smiles, well, as one would expect, were just a little bit wider as one by one the Hilltoppers climbed the ladder Tuesday night to get a snip of the net. When Crutchfield took the last cut and threw it into the crowd of his players, a loud roar of approval went up.

“It’s always nice to win in front of your home crowd, but when you’re in an environment like this it makes you battled-tested,” C.J. Hester said. “It is pretty sweet to win in a venue like this.”

For once there was thought this might be where West Liberty’s remarkable run ended. After all, there were exactly zero cases on record of a team winning a title in enemy territory. Crutchfield said that is OK with him, but he didn’t necessarily mind the Hilltoppers being given little more than a puncher’s chance.

“I love being an underdog and this was a chance to say that,” Crutchfield said. “They’re second in the country, the No. 1 seed in the region and (30) and one.

“We were the underdog and playing in front of 2,500 fans screaming for them. I felt like we were the underdog and that is when I think we’re at our best, we just don’t get a chance to prove it very often.”

The only thing left to prove now, is can they grab that elusive national championship. Really, that question has been hanging around for a few years now.

People often ask me if this is the year, and time and again the answer has been ‘yes.’ I honestly didn’t feel that way coming into this year, because eventually the law of averages say the graduation of a litany of 1,000-point scorers will catch up.

After Tuesday night’s performance I have changed my thought process entirely. This is the year, and it starts a week from today at the Elite 8 in Evansville, Ind., with defending national champion Drury.

Shawn Rine can be reached via email at srine@theintelligencer.net