The Wheeling Jesuit Cardinals Men’s Basketball team finished the 2014-2015 on a tear. A 13-2 run to end the regular season boosted them into the MEC tournament where they would win two more games before being ousted by Fairmont State. Despite just missing out on the NCAA tournament, that season showed a lot of promise.
This year, head coach Danny Sancomb returned ten of his starters full of high expectations. The team was still relatively young, but their youth was now charged with an experience that was ready to take them to the next level.
“Last year we were a very good team, and at the end of the year I felt that we could have played with anybody,” Sancomb said. “We just had so many injuries at the beginning of the season that once we were able to get healthy we played exceptionally well. Our returning players had a bad taste in their mouth not to make the NCAA tournament and I think that was some motivation in the summer and we hit the ground running.”
That motivation this summer has translated to success. WJU currently sits at 19-1 and the top team in the Mountain East Conference. This past week, they jumped eight spots in the NABC Coaches Poll to No. 5 in the nation after taking down the then-No. 1 West Liberty Hilltoppers.
The Cardinals are led by a small core of seniors — Eric Siefert, Tim Goff and Justin Fritts— who have grown together through the ranks both in their on the court ability and their off the court leadership. Entering this season, Fritts had been one of the mainstays in the starting lineup, having started 82 games over his three previous seasons. This year, the senior has shown his younger teammates a thing or two about the character it takes to win.
Fritts sacrificed his starting role, and has become one of the elite sixth men in DII.
“Championship level teams have sacrifices that every player has to make,” Sancomb said. “It’s not always the best thing for the individual but what is best for the team. He [Fritts] has relished and excelled in the role thus far and has no complaints about it. He was one of the most highly recruited players in our program, he was the Freshman of the Year, and an All-Conference player, but he is all about winning.”
Senior guard Eric Siefert leads the team in both assists (3.8 per game) and points (15.1) this season. His four year journey has been nothing short of rewarding.
“It’s been awesome,” Siefert said of his WJU career. “We’ve been trying to improve every year and this year has been the pinnacle for us. We said this was our year, we wanted to have no regrets and end our career on high note. As a senior, your time is running out and you need to make the most of it.”
Siefert and his Cardinals have without question made the most of it. The season saw them start hot out of the gates, sweeping both games of the Shepherd Classic and then reel off three more wins for a 5-0 start. They then ran into the perennial MEC postseason threats Fairmont University. They dropped that game at Fairmont 94-91.
“It was a wake up call,” Siefert said. “We believe that we are the best team in the conference, if not the region. That was a hard loss to take. Coach told us we need to learn from this, we need to get better from this, we don’t have time to weep about it. We have, we’ve gotten better since then so it will be interesting to see what happens when we play Fairmont again how much truly we’ve gotten better.”
Gotten better is an understatement. They haven’t lost since that Fairmont game, reeling off 14 consecutive victories. They have done it behind a unified, team-first effort that sees the Cardinals as a team that is six or seven players deep.
“That’s what makes us go,” Sancomb said. “I don’t know if I were breaking down the film who I would say, “we need to stop this guy to beat Wheeling.” We’re just very unselfish, we pass the ball extremely well. It’s about recruiting guys that really want to win, and that’s more important than any statistical category.”
The acme of the season thus far was 106-83 victory over West Liberty. WLU is a heated rival and has somewhat owned the series is recent history, especially against the current core of seniors. Siefert, Fritts and Goff were a combined 1-6 against WLU heading into this game, dropping their first five games of their career against the MEC powerhouse.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Siefert said of the win. “I’ve only won that game twice. It’s fun beating them because they were the No. 1 team in the nation and they are right up the road. My freshman, sophomore and half of my junior year, we didn’t have any bragging rights. Now, I think we finally have the final say right now.”
WLU is the top scoring team in the nation, averaging 103.1 points a night heading into this weekend’s action. The Cardinals were able to defeat them by 23 points holding them under that nightly 100 point threshold. While five Cardinals chipped in double-digit points in the victory, their three starting big men — sophomores Haywood Highsmith and Pat Moseh (who registered his fourth consecutive double-double Thursday evening against West Virginia State) and junior Kyle Ritz — all came through with double-doubles.
“They were focused and ready to play,” Sancomb said. “We’re not the biggest team, but we’re quick and physically stronger than most people think. Those three guys are so good at going to get the basketball that they create a lot of matchup problems.”
Equally impressive was that WJU followed up their monumental victory with an 87-68 victory over Urbana. A younger team such as WJU could often succumb to the cliched let down game, but the senior leadership of Siefert, Fritts and Goff simply wouldn’t allow it.
“We all understand that it is one game at a time,” Siefert — who posted a double-double of his own in the winning effort against Urbana— said. “Me and Justin, we do a lot of the talking off the court. We said that game we had to be mentally prepared or it could have been a let down game. Sometimes the younger players don’t understand that, they think that you can just walk in and they will bow down to us because we beat West Lib. But we came in mentally prepared and ready to play, and that’s what we needed.”
Now WJU finds themselves in the top five in the country. It’s a ranking that they have not achieved since 1997. That 1997 team was led also led by Sancomb, except he happened to be a top scoring player in the nation back then. But rankings seemingly don’t mean too much to this group who is simply excited — and highly committed — to be winning.
“I tell these guys that the ’97 team would kick their butts any day of the week,” Sancomb said with a laugh. “All joking aside, I know it’s cliche, but I literally take it one game at a time. I need to do my best to help these guys and prepare these guys to be as great as they can be this year. It doesn’t matter who we play, I do the same thing day in and day out.”
Now, WJU finds themselves on the cusp of something that has eluded them for the past three seasons — the NCAA tournament. Graduate assistant coach Benjamin Siefert — Eric’s older brother — was on the last Cardinals team to make the NCAAs and helped lead WJU to their only NCAA Tournament win in program’s history. Does the little family rivalry motivate younger brother Eric?
“I think it would give me the edge in the bragging rights,” Siefert said. “He can say that he made the tournament, he won a game. If I could do that, I think it would give me a little edge.”
Lurking two games down the road is a game that WJU — especially the seniors — certainly has circled on their calendars. Fairmont returns to Wheeling where the high flying Cardinals will be looking to avenge their lone loss of the season.
“Oh yea, I’ve been waiting for this,” Siefert said. “Like coach said, we take it one game at a time, but that one definitely has my attention.”
It certainly has been a magical season for WJU thus far. They have taken huge strides to reach the success that they have achieved. Sancomb knows that this is a special bunch in the present that is growing together for an even brighter future. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They just respond,” Sancomb said. “Obviously it’s been fun thus far because we are 18-1. But record aside, coaching this team has been so much fun because our practices are so competitive and our guys come ready. That’s why they are having success. They want to be the best team that we can become, and they understand that we still have a long way to go.”