Grizzlies embark on historic venture to NCAA DII Tournament
by David Mejia
ALAMOSA, Colo. - Larry Mortensen is living the dream. Only two months ago, the veteran coach of the Adams State College men’s basketball team told the Grizzlies he was stepping down from his post of 11 seasons. What has transpired since that time is nothing short or remarkable.
All Mortensen and the Grizzlies have done is reel off 12 wins in 14 games, play in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout championship game for the first time in school history and qualify for the North Central Regional Tournament, which is part of the NCAA Division II National Men’s Basketball Tournament that concludes with the Elite Eight in Springfield, Mass.
The culmination of the Grizzlies success to this point occurred on Sunday evening in a classroom in Plachy Hall. Players, coaches, cheerleaders and fans of the Grizzlies returned to Alamosa after the RMAC Shootout finale and witnessed history. Shortly before 10 p.m. Adams State College appeared on the bracket in the North Central Region in the televised selection show via the internet.
The room erupted in celebration, as the players screamed, yelled, cheered and hugged each other upon realizing they achieved a season-long goal. It was certainly an emotional and historical moment for the Adams State basketball program, as it was selected as one of 64 teams selected to participate in the 2007 NCAA National Division II Tournament.
“I think it’s huge,” Mortensen said. “For one, to get into the (RMAC Shootout) Championship on Altitude (television) and have exposure for two hours on regional television in seven states is tremendous. The school can’t afford that kind of advertising and that’s a positive. It’s also very positive for the program for recruiting. It gives substance when you tell a recruit we’re going to take it to another level and we’ve already shown that we can do it.
“I would have been extremely disappointed if we weren’t in,” Mortensen said. “I wasn’t surprised, but at what level I kind of was. I thought we’d maybe be a seventh or eighth seed, but we were a sixth and I was surprised at that.”
The team struggled early in the season, going 1-7 before getting their legs under them and getting on a roll. The one win proved to be significant as well, as the Grizzlies defeated West Texas A & M 69-62 over the Thanksgiving Break. The Buffaloes, 18-10, are the sixth seed in the South Central Region and will play No. 3 Midwestern State (Texas) in the first round.
“I think it’s a mistake if you don’t shoot for being the best,” Mortensen said. “I believed in this team even when we were 1-7. It’s not like we doubted that, but you have to be realistic in saying that at the time we were not a good enough basketball team to be where we are now."
In just two days Mortensen and the Grizzlies will step onto the basketball court at Winona, State University to play in Adams State’s first-ever post season game in the 2007 NCAA Division II North Central Regional Basketball Tournament. Adams State will face a familiar foe in Metro State in its first-round game on Saturday, which is an interesting match-up considering the Roadrunners beat the Grizzlies in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout Tournament championship on Saturday, 70-60.
The game was certainly much closer than the final score might indicate, as Adams State trailed by three points at halftime and challenged Metro State throughout the second half before succumbing to the game clock and Roadrunner free throws.
Adams State entered the RMAC Shootout with a great deal of momentum, but was hindered by the flu bug. Mortensen was forced to turn a mid-week practice into a shoot around due to having only five players healthy enough to practice.
Fielding a full team turned out to be a challenge for the Shootout, but Mortensen and the Grizzlies made no excuses and managed to overcome the flu and Nebraska-Kearney to reach the tourney finale against Metro State.
While the championship game didn’t turn out in Adams State’s favor, the Grizzlies proved to themselves that they not only can run with the big dogs, but their bite is equal or better than all but one RMAC team at this juncture. The Grizzlies will get another shot at the Roadrunners and this time the team will be closer to full strength and more familiar with the Metro State offense and man defense.
Mortensen will undoubtedly figure a way to get the Grizzlies perimeter shooters more opportunities. Roman Moniak (Sacramento, Calif.) and Wes Jensen (Molalla, Ore.) have been consistent scorers from outside the arc, while Marcus Mortensen (Cortez, Colo.) and Larry Charles Jr. (Tucson, Ariz.) have stepped up their game handling the pressure up front, dishing out assists and providing their share of the scoring as well.
Russ Murrey (El Cerrito, Calif.), David Hull (Belen, N.M.), Kyle Forster (Sanford, Colo.) and Kevin Johnson (Newark, Calif.) have played crucial roles for the Grizzlies during their stretch run. Every player has contributed in some capacity and it must continue to be the case for advancement in the tournament.
The end result has been a more balanced offensive attack for Adams State, which has made them a more dangerous team. The Grizzlies will need all the balance and a good shooting effort to turn back the Roadrunners, who are accustomed to being in the national spotlight, having won consecutive national titles in 2001-2002 seasons.
Adams State will have to play more aggressive defense against Metro State. Limiting RMAC Shootout Most Valuable Player Jesse Wagstaff, who proved to be dominant on the perimeter and the foul line, scoring 19 points that included four three-point goals and nine rebounds, will be a key concern for the Grizzlies.
“More importantly, it’s how the players feel and they’re confident,” the coach said. “A lot of coaches say to beat Metro you’ve got to go in believing you can beat them and be confident. You can have the best game plan and Xs and Os and everything right, but if you go in timid against a team that’s athletic, who’s disciplined, deep and aggressive, you’re going to get beat. But our guys are fired up and ready to go.”
The Grizzlies are the sixth seed in the tournament, while Metro State is the third seed. The game is slated for 2:30 p.m. (CST) in Winona State’s McCown Gymnasium and will be broadcast live on KSPK-FM (103.5) in Alamosa, as well as on the internet at www.kspk.com. Grizzly fans can also get live updates on the Winona State website.
Should Adams State beat Metro State it would face the winner of the game between second-seeded Minnesota State University-Mankato and seventh-seeded Fort Lewis College on Sunday at 6 p.m. (CST).