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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | March 7, 2022

Cleveland State's Chris Kielsmeier looks back on his bout with COVID two years later

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INDIANAPOLIS – Cleveland State was the designated visiting team Monday, just like two years ago. That meant Chris Kielsmeier was coaching from the west bench, just like two years ago. It was the first semifinal game of the Horizon League tournament in Indiana Farmers Coliseum, just like two years ago.

The Vikings won this Monday. They lost that Monday. Two days later, the world caved in on sports . . . on college basketball . . . on Kielsmeier. Ten days later, he would be in a hospital, coughing up blood, an early victim of a surging monster called COVID.

How could he walk into the Coliseum Monday and not be affected by the echoes and the memories? Short answer: He couldn’t.

“It’s a powerful question. I relive it,” he said after Cleveland State pushed past Green Bay 69-42. “You lay in a hospital bed, you’re fighting for your life at the time. It’s been two years that have been really difficult. The support system that I have in my life – my parents are sitting in the back – you just never know when someone else needs a phone call or a text or a pick-me-up. So, I’ve tried to really live by example of that, knowing how much people reached out and helped me through the struggles that I went through.”

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He was tired that Monday in 2020, but figured it was just the natural fatigue of a long season. The Vikings were blitzed by IUPUI in the semifinals, so the team returned home.

By the next night, he was waking up with what he called the worst body aches and chills of his life. The flu, he figured. But he was getting no better Thursday so he went to a clinic, where they took one look and shipped him to a hospital for tests. By Saturday, he knew. COVID. Possible the first documented case for a Division I head coach.

He went home to quarantine but grew worse and ended up in the hospital. He was scared. He was anguished. He was in his early 40s and the virus was not supposed to be taking victims that young, but he felt so awful. And who knew? In the middle of the night, he rang for a nurse – for someone ­­– to come to his room. He just needed to talk.

He was in the hospital for six days before he was well enough to go home and start the long road back. By then, all of college basketball had shut down. The NCAA Tournament had been canceled. The world had gone a little dark. The world was heading down the same very long tunnel.

Two years later, Cleveland State is 21-7 and in its first league championship in 12 years. The Vikings had a terrific game Monday, while Kielsmeier sat on the bench, sometimes in a mask. Too bad they didn’t have those in 2020. Fans were in the stands, with the pandemic regulations loosened.

He was a happy man this Monday. “Today, what we did, was really a culmination of four years,” he said. “We’ve had moments up here that didn’t go the way we wanted them to. You’ve just got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe bigger and better things are ahead of you. You’ve got to go to work. This program went to work.”

But mention 2020, and the shadow of remembrance flashed across his face.

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“Being up here is awesome because it’s the whole goal for everything that we do as a program. But it’s the same hotel, it’s the same gym, it’s the same everything,” he said. “Those thoughts are in my head and I have to process them. I have to make sure that I keep them out and stay focused, and tasked to do what I need to do because a lot of people depend on our coaching staff. But it’s a challenge. But it’s a good challenge because you just love the opportunity to still be playing, you’ve just got to love life.”

That is what he has taken from 2020, from that day in the Coliseum to this one.

“Sometimes we let things that really shouldn’t really bother us, we think it’s too much of a struggle. It’s not that much of a struggle," Kielsmeier stressed. "People have got it way worse. Smile and love life. And I try to do that every day.”

On a March Tuesday in 2020, Chris Kielsmeier was starting to feel really ill and the magnitude of the coming crisis was just beginning to dawn on America. On a March Tuesday in 2022, his team will play IUPUI for the Horizon League title. So much the same, so much different.

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