What do Central Missouri, Pittsburg State, Washburn and Northwest Missouri State University have in common? They can all pound their chests and proudly proclaim that they beat the NCAA II national champion.
On Friday night, Emporia broke open a close game in the last five minutes for a 12-point win against Ft. Lewis University. Emporia was certainly talented. They raced through November, December and January with only one loss. Then, amazingly the Hornets lost three regular season games in February. Their losses were to Central Missouri, Pitt State and Washburn. The Hornets appeared to be a lock to win the MIAA regular season championship, only to see their old Kansas foe, Washburn, come on late in the year to claim the crown. They didn’t even make it to the finals of the MIAA Tournament when Central Missouri led almost the whole game to send them home.
Who knew that they wouldn’t lose another game? It takes a six-game winning streak to win the NCAA II crown. That’s exactly what Emporia accomplished. Now, four MIAA teams can go into the off season saying, “What if..?” There’s a very fine line between being a national champion and ending the season with a loss. It reminds me how Jimmy Buffet describes religion in his song “Fruitcakes.” Buffet, when describing religion, sings, “There’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.” That’s a perfect analogy for college basketball.
Maybe Northwest and Pitt State really shouldn’t feel like there is a fine line for their teams to win a national championship. We defeated Emporia 88-74 in early December. I doubt Emporia took us real serious. After all, we had just lost two games in a row to Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) teams. By the way, Ft. Lewis, Emporia’s foe in the championship game, came from the RMAC. However, in our locker room that December night, we were 1-0 in the MIAA and Emporia was 0-1. That’s tantalizingly close and a fine line for me, despite our 14- 15 record. Pitt State finished with almost the same record at 14-14, despite beating the national champion in February. I think Pitt State had visions of a better season, but as I know very well, things don’t always work out like we have them mapped out.
There are two MIAA coaches who can only shake their heads at how close they came to being a national champion. Ron McHenry, the Washburn coach who owns a national championship with his Lady Blues, split two games with Emporia. His team then won the regular season MIAA championship and the tournament championship. However, one bad shooting night against Northeast Oklahoma sent them home to Topeka. Emporia won the NCAA Regional Championship by defeating Northeast Oklahoma by almost 30 points. That’s what you call red-hot.
Dave Slifer, the Central Missouri State coach, does really have a claim to be sitting right on that fine line that separates a team from a national championship. Not only did his Jennies defeat Emporia in February, but they knocked them out of the MIAA Tournament in the semifinals. I don’t know many other teams in the 11 years I have been at Northwest that went 2-1 against Emporia during one season. Unfortunately, Dave’s team never got a third chance as Washburn beat them in the first round of the NCAA Regional Tournament. Sometimes, it’s the luck of the draw that knocks you off that fine line.
At Northwest, we know how that feels. After splitting with Washburn in the 2003-2004 regular season, we knocked them out of the MIAA Tournament in the semifinals. We then avenged 17- and 21-point losses to Emporia by beating the Hornets in the championship game. We were fired up to play in the NCAA Regionals for the first time in 20 years. We were sure we could play with Drury from the Heartland Conference or any Lone Star Conference team. Guess who our first round draw was? That would be the Lady Blues for the fourth time that year. They beat us by one point and Drury went on to get to the championship game, only to lose to California (PA). That fine line looks like a tight rope across the Grand Canyon sometimes.
One year I had a high school team, with a 12-7 record. Not much of a fine line, right? We lost to the state champion by one point and the runner-up by three points. We never lost a game that year by more than four points. I was a young coach, balancing on a fine line that my school board thought I should jump over. My administrators didn’t care about the close losses. They just knew we weren’t playing in March. Oh, that fine line can kill your coaching career.
It happens every year at every level. Kansas is still picking buck shot out of their Jayhawk uniforms from the shocking loss to Northern Iowa. In this case, there’s not even a fine line between being a champion and not getting there. It’s a road block in the person of a sharp-shooter with a long last name because of his Iranian heritage. That player was named Farokhmanesh. Not every team in Kansas won a national championship this year. Emporia celebrates alone among Kansas colleges and the powerful Kansas men’s team can only ask what if? My question is does Farokhmanesh really mean “Bird Killer” in Iran?