Before Jon VanderWal arrived at Marrietta College, success seemed to be nothing more than a pipe dream. The Pioneers won 12 games during a three-year stretch. The last thing on their minds was success in the NCAA Division III tournament.
The story is different today. Marietta, in the tournament for the first time since 1975, will play in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history today when it battles top-ranked Whitworth at Timken Gymnasium in Wooster, Ohio.
It’s safe to say VanderWal has worked wonders in his four seasons on the bench. Marietta is 27-3 this season, a huge step forward for a team that was 10-16 last season.
“We changed the culture of the program,” VanderWal said. “We knew we had to improve the talent level, and by bringing in good recruiting classes, we are much better off. Our players are not only great basketball players, but they are great people as well.”
The journey to this point began with a 67-62 win against Centre in the opening round of the tournament. But the exclamation point of the run so far has been the riveting 63-62 victory against Wittenberg.
Tyler Hammond looked nothing like a freshman as he drained a jumper with six seconds remaining to not only secure a come-from-behind win, but avenge an 85-70 loss to Wittenberg in the NCAA second round — back in the 1975 tournament.
“It was a great accomplishment for us, especially when you look at where we have come from,” VanderWal said. “It’s exciting to be in the Sweet 16 and we are looking forward to the opportunity in front of us.”
Trevor Halter is one of three players averaging in double figures, clicking for 15.4 points per game. Kevin Knap is pouring in 15.1 points per outing and Hammond is averaging 11 ppg.
Marietta is averaging 78 points per outing and giving up 69.
And while facing the top team in the land might not be the most ideal situation, the Pioneers aren’t going to make anything easy for the Pirates.
“We have a lot of confidence, and we feel like if we execute on offense and force their shooters to take bad shots, we will have a chance,” VanderWal said. “It won’t be easy, but we believe we can give ourselves a chance to win.”
Need To Know
• St. Mary’s has been a model of consistency in the NCAA tournament. The Seahawks toppled Randolph-Macon 68-53 in the second round of the tournament last weekend, advancing to their second consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and third in the last four years. Senior center Sam Burum led the charge, dropping in 15 points and grabbing five rebounds. Alex Franz turned in a solid all-around performance, tallying 13 points, six assists and seven steals. St. Mary’s did not allow any of Randolph-Macon’s starters to score in double figures as it eliminated a team that played in the 2010 Final Four in Salem, Va.
• Rhode Island College will be back in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season after stunning Oswego State 71-63. The Anchormen sizzled from the field, shooting 55.3 percent on a night when the starters combined for 62 points. Rhode Island scored 13 of its final 18 points from the free-throw line, with Mason Choice hitting nine of his 12 shots from the line en route to scoring 17 points.
• Conor Meehan had his way against WPI in a second round tournament game last week. The senior co-captain scored 20 points and dished out 10 assists in a 92-70 win that puts the Lord Jeffs in the Sweet 16 for the eighth time in 10 years.
• Tyler Nicolai dropped in 24 points and led St. Thomas to a 78-70 win at home against Illinois Wesleyan in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Nicolai drilled three treys during a key 21-6 run late in the first half and has shot 22 of 46 from beyond the arc in the Tommies’ last five games.
• Wooster shot only 34.7 percent from the floor, but the less-than-stellar shooting performance was enough to carry the Scots past Manchester in a 47-45 win in the second round. The point total was the lowest for Wooster in a winning effort since 1984 when it edged John Carroll 41-38.