by Danny Barnts, sports information director
Winter 2011-12 has brought an excitement to the hardwood at Western Oregon University that the Wolves have not seen in over a decade. Under first year head coach Brady Bergeson, the WOU men's basketball team opened the season 14-4, including putting together its best first half ever in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Immediately upon being hired as head coach, Bergeson, a Longview, Wash., native, started installing discipline to the rogram both on and off the court. He created a mandatory study hall for the whole team to make sure they were getting their schoolwork done.
"The first thing we did was clean up the academic side," said Bergeson. "You have to establish your academic integrity as a foundation to organization. Basketball may have attracted them here but we all know the reason they are here is to get their education. That has to be valued, preached and put into action.
"It was a pretty simple formula to overhaul the organization of the academics. You can always get a guy’s interest in basketball but a straight line must be drawn between the athletic and academic dots. They have to see the correlation of how academic success can lead to championships."
While the head coach has changed, many of the faces on the team have remained the same. The team is built around a corps of student-athletes who have been playing together for four seasons. The 2008-09 recruiting class of Kyle Long, Blair Wheadon and Kolton Nelson has been starting along each other for the better part of three seasons and the trio is on pace to become just the second set of teammates in GNAC to all score over 1,000 points in their career. The Wolves also brought back four other letter winners for Bergeson's first year, keeping the talent but changing the structure of the process.
That word 'championship' has been whispered around the men's basketball program from the minute the team began training for the 2011-12 season. It was not just the fact that the Wolves were bringing back their whole starting lineup, including the trio of senior guards, it was a true confidence and belief the team was building.
"I feel we provided an environment for the minor successes to happen each day," explained Bergeson. "By working hard on the court, taking pride in the weight room, seeing their times decrease and their bodies change they can see the dots leading in a direction and each of these are pennies in the bank that they are investing in their own experience here. By investing daily they can start to see where the path starts to go, which we hope is a championship."
Besides ‘championship,’ a variety of other buzz words have started cropping up around the men's basketball team: 'hard work', 'commitment' and even 'soldiers.' In fact, the team has dedicated itself to becoming the most physically fit team in the conference. The student-athletes put in numerous hours in the weight room in addition to their hours spent practicing on the court, including individuals working on skills at 6 a.m., grueling workouts and some members of the squad changing their diet to match that of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
"There is a certain amount of pride that comes from doing something out of the ordinary and something others might not be willing to sacrifice to do," Bergeson explained. "One of the pillars of our culture is sacrifice. The question amongst the coaches and players is 'What are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want?' Your actions everyday show your commitment level to the organization.
"In the end you have to look yourself in the mirror and say 'Did we get it done or didn’t we?'" he continued. "To give yourself a chance for success at that level, the ownership and the process comes down to the players and staff all being in there together. We (as coaches) are sweating and working hard right next to them and we are all pushing each other to that end goal. There are ways each day to invest those pennies towards our end goal, and we have to be in it together."
By pushing the Wolves past what is expected and sacrificing more than other teams in the league, Bergeson was not only getting his team in peak physical condition he was building a sense of unity amongst the young men.
"I really believe that all ends have to lead to the team," Bergeson said. "It's easy to lose sight of the individual when you only think about team, but the individual is important too. Each individual must be made to show how important they are to that organization but they are only important if they are doing their job. If they put themselves above the organization they are no longer important. There is individual accountability and team accountability, and both are equally important in the sense you can't separate one from the other."
Through team building, and by installing structure and discipline in the team, Coach Bergeson has started to lay the foundation to bring Western Oregon its first ever men's basketball GNAC title.
"I have no way of knowing when we will win a GNAC Championship but I know we are going to," said Bergeson. "One of the first things we did when we got in here was say that championship was going to happen and everything we do needs to directly correspond to how we get there."