Calm, cool and collected
Hesser leads Drury to its first national championship
ATLANTA -- Head coach Steve Hesser sat very calmly on the Drury bench, his arms folded and one leg crossed over the other. When he did stand, he wasn't over-the-top demonstrative, like some coaches seem to be these days.
All that was on the line was an NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship. Never before had the school been in this position, and even after capturing a thrilling 74-73 victory against Metro State, Hesser still appeared unperturbed.
Turns out, though, there was a darn good reason for Hesser's relatively calm demeanor despite the circumstances. He had just been through an illness that left him, even in Atlanta, at what he called 85 percent of his normal self.
"I had a little bout with pneumonia and bacteria in my blood," Hesser said, his expression unchanging. "I didn't have any energy for about four weeks, so my assistants did most of [the coaching]. They obviously did a very good job. I'll probably coach that way the rest of my life."
All around Hesser, chaos reigned. The Drury contingent on hand for the game -- and there were a ton of them among the 7,763 in attendance at Philips Arena -- lived and died on every move their team made. As the comeback surged in the second half, the sound they made was palpable.
Texas A&M has its 12th man in football. Drury has its sixth man in basketball.
"This was easily the most fun game of my life," sophomore guard Drake Patterson said. "I didn't expect it. It was packed. It didn't look like there was an open seat in the house. Our fans were unbelievable. Each play that we made, big or small, our fans were cheering for us as loud as they could. I don't think they understand how much that helps us and how much we appreciate it."
Drury's only other championship of note came in 1979, when the school won the NAIA title. That was a long time ago, more than a full decade before any of the current crop of Panthers players were born.
Now that they've won the DII title, their efforts all year long have paid off.
"It's the most amazing feeling," sophomore Cameron Adams said. "Practice started Oct. 15. Coach wasn't the nicest person back then. He's kind of eased up as of late. All that hard work, being there in the summer and working, getting up at 6 a.m. -- all that paid off.
"This is the highest we'll ever play at, and we won the highest award that we could. There's nothing better we could ask for. It's wonderful."
The hours they put in together bonded the Panthers in ways only they will be able to understand in years to come. You go through something like what they've been through, and it changes you.
"It's a huge honor," said Alex Hall, who made what turned out to be the two game-winning free throws with 22.8 seconds left on the clock. "I wouldn't want it any other way. We're like a family. We hang out off the court, on the court and all. There's so much excitement, you're just kind of left speechless."
The closest Hesser ever came to letting his emotions get the best of him came when asked what the championship meant to him personally.
"You're going to make me break up here," he said, then paused ever so briefly. All week, the team received support. On Saturday, Hesser was having dinner with a group of Drury alums when the manager of the restaurant came over and introduced himself.
He was a Drury graduate, too, and asked to have a photograph taken.
"You see how many people came?" he continued. "They united our university from years and years back. It's huge for our university, because it united everybody and gave them something to rally around."
Hesser didn't say if the meal was on the house or not, but that probably didn't matter. Not with a national championship in hand.