Old friend comes back for Salem finale

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Dale Wellman cutting the net down
Dale Wellman celebrates with the net after his Nebraska Wesleyan team won the 2018 Division III men's basketball national title.
Photos by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

By Ryan Scott

Salem, Virginia has been the host for the NCAA Division III men’s basketball championship weekend for 23 years.

In this final Salem weekend, at least for the foreseeable future, an old friend came back for a visit.

Nebraska Wesleyan A charter member of Division III, Nebraska Wesleyan had been to the final weekend four times previous, including finishing as national runner-up in the second year the tournament was hosted in Salem. Having dual NAIA affiliation and playing in the Great Plains Athletic Conference for many years, access to the NCAA Tournament was increasingly difficult.

Three years ago the school joined the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and fully committed to Division III. That decision was validated in their fifth trip to the final four with a national title, beating UW-Oshkosh 78-72 in the championship game.

“I am not a coach who talks about goals,” said head coach, Dale Wellman, the D3hoops.com national Coach of the Year. “I said to these guys ‘let’s do something special.' I thought having our top six scorers return from last season, I thought we could do something special, but I didn’t know what the ceiling was.”

Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

The Prairie Wolves capped off a thrilling, unpredictable NCAA Tournament with a thrilling, unpredictable final in which both teams shot 60 percent in the first half and NWU took its first lead of the game with a Nate Schimonitz 3-pointer at the first half buzzer.

The hot shooting continued a trend for Nebraska Wesleyan, which secured its place this weekend with a 33 point demolition of D3hoops.com No. 1 Whitman in the sectional final, behind 70 percent field goal shooting and outlasted Springfield in overtime in the national semifinal.

Junior Cooper Cook was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after pacing the team on Friday, scoring 25, including seven threes. He hit 4-of-6 from deep in the championship game, scoring 16, while also defending the interior against a larger Titan squad and playing 82 of 85 minutes in the final four.

Cook is continuing a family legacy. His father Kevin played in two championship weekends for Nebraska Wesleyan in the 1980s. “This week my dad kept telling me he made it here twice,” said the younger Cook, “They finished third both times, so I think we’ve one upped him now.”

Kevin Cook added, “My mother is having a great time following this experience. She gets to relive it as do I. It’s obviously a little more stressful watching from the stands. I’m really proud of Cooper and it’s been his time to shine.”

Oshkosh broke a Final Four record for 3-point field goals made in one game, with 17, and tied the weekend record with 27. This hot shooting, led by junior Ben Boots and senior Charlie Noone was how the Titans advanced this far and it was almost enough for a championship.

“We couldn’t have played much better,” noted Titan coach Pat Juckem. “Nebraska Wesleyan is very good offensively. They are multi-dimensional positionally and the zone is tough. They made big shots and when we made mistakes they capitalized; that’s the trademark of a really good team.”

Added Wellman: “My guys busted their humps every day; they bought into that goal to do something special.

“Going into the conference tournament I realized maybe they were prepared to do something even more special than I envisioned. Being on the road all three weekends brought us together and allowed us to really grow as a team. This is vindication for these guys who maybe didn’t get all the respect they deserved throughout the entire season and even for our conference – it’s great to come out here and represent the Iowa conference.”

Nebraska Wesleyan is the first IIAC team to make the final four and obviously the first to win a national title. After Wartburg’s impressive run last season and an increasingly competitive conference slate, the conference may serve as cradle for the rebirth of a national power.

Key to that rebirth, along with Cook, is All-American Ryan Garver, who came up big in the second half and overtime against Springfield and Schimonitz, who serves as floor leader.

“Nate is the guy we trust with the ball in his hands at the end of a game,” said Wellman – and Schimonitz did just that, running clock before sinking a contested 10-footer in the lane to put Nebraska Wesleyan up five with 14.4 seconds remaining.

“The last couple nights I haven’t played my best,” said Schimonitz “But my team still trusts me to take and make a big shot.”

After a surprise season, where nothing was predictable, we got a fitting finish where both team played at a tremendous level. It was also an appropriate farewell to Salem, which has been a part of Division III men’s basketball for the entire lifespan of the players who won tonight. It’s been a great part of their coach’s career, too.

“My first time in this building was 2003 – [Williams] came to the Final Four my first year as an assistant coach – I was really impressed with everything then, even when I didn’t know all about it. To come back here in the final year that it’s in Salem – not just winning the championship, but everything’s been absolutely first class. It’s been an unbelievable weekend.”

The future is bright for Nebraska Wesleyan. The Prairie Wolves graduate just one senior and will benefit from the experience of a tough tournament. “We’ll celebrate it for now,” says Schimontiz, “But hopefully we can win a couple more the next few years.”

For the Prairie Wolves and everyone else, the road to Fort Wayne and the 2019 national title begin now.

Nebraska Wesleyan with the trophy