by Ben Anderson
It’s been a long time since Warren Wilson put together a winning season in men’s basketball – so long, in fact, that no one on campus seems to recall the exact year. The consensus is that it last happened sometime during the Reagan administration, before most current Warren Wilson students were born. In any case, it’s safe to say that the last winning season for the men’s team occurred well before the most recent millennium.
Enter the 2011-12 season, the fourth at Warren Wilson guided by head coach Kevin Walden. Walden’s teams won a total of 27 games during his first three seasons, a vast improvement over previous years but still short of winning records. A winning season continued to seem an elusive goal, perhaps even more so after the Owls lost their first three games of 2011-12.
As the season progressed, however, the Owls began piling up victories despite being unable to win more than two consecutive games for most of the schedule. But a tough buzzer-beating loss at home to Milligan College – after a 17-point Owls rally had tied the game in the final minute – dropped WWC two games below .500, at 7-9.
After the Milligan defeat, the Owls regrouped and reeled off nine straight wins to finish the regular season 16-9, capped by a hard-earned 73-69 victory over Florida Christian College on Senior Day in WWC’s DeVries Gym. Another highlight of the winning streak was an 84-76 win over neighboring Montreat College, fueled by a raucous crowd in DeVries. Just how loud was the crowd that night? Warren Wilson biology professor Louise Weber, who lives on campus near the gym, described it even though she wasn’t at the game:
“The crowd inside the gym was so loud, I could hear the outcome of the last five minutes from my carport, ¼ mile from DeVries. I could clearly hear “stomp-stomp dee-fence,” then clearly hear the disappointment when a foul was called, then the fans screaming when Montreat shot the foul, then a fast break, then the victory and storming the floor, all oozing out of the walls and drifting across the soccer field.”
In their next game after Montreat, the Owls defeated Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte for their 13th win of the season, thereby assuring a winning record over the 25-game schedule. But they didn’t stop there, sweeping the final three games to extend their winning streak to nine and making the Owls’ first winning season since the 1980s even more impressive.
“It’s been a fantastic year for our basketball program,” Coach Walden said. “We’ve got a great group of young men who understand the importance of being successful on and off the court and have competed each and every day. Our team has really come together this season and we played our best basketball towards the end.”
The winning season may have been especially sweet for three Owl seniors who have been stalwart members of the basketball program: James Gaza, Patrick Rulong and Matt Kantor. They completed their college careers with the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to the Owls’ first winning mark in more than a generation.
The Owls also just missed receiving one of seven at-large bids to the national championships of the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association (Division II). But even absent a bid, the 2011-12 men’s basketball season at Warren Wilson has been one to remember. Chances are the 2012-13 season will be too as the Owls seek to build on their nine-game winning streak.