It has been 16 years in the making, but next week the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College Golden Norsemen basketball team will once again make the journey to Hutchinson, Kan. to play in the National Junior College Athletic Association's Tournament to determine who is the top team in the nation.
This past week, NEO Head Coach Dustin Grover's squad qualified by winning all three of their games at the Region II Tournament held in Shawnee.
The last time NEO's men's program claimed a regional title and made the prestigious trip to the national tournament was the 1991-92 season under former head coach Lonnie Spencer.
For Grover, his regional tournament win capped a solid 26-7 season. The Golden Norsemen entered the tournament the No. 3 seed, defeating Western Oklahoma College, the No. 1-seeded Arkansas-Fort Smith, and Northern Oklahoma College-Enid in the final.
Grover, now in his third year as head coach, said this win was not only important to him and his team, but to NEO athletics and the community.
“Miami and NEO are special places, and people need to understand that NEO has always been recognized on a national level for it's quality of men's basketball,” Grover said.
“We have been in a drought for the past 16 years however, I now believe we are getting back to a point where we can be competitive on that national level each year,” he said.
Grover is quick to point out that he is following some outstanding former coaches that helped NEO get to the top level in the past.
He stated coaches such as Cletus Green, Larry Gipson, and Lonnie Spencer helped shape NEO's winning tradition and rise to national prominence. Grover stated he is extremely proud to now join their ranks.
Winning the regional tournament and getting to play for a national championship is an even greater task when considering the level of basketball competition in NEO's region.
“In our league, you're playing some of the toughest teams in the nation in my opinion,” he said.
“NEO has won a national title in the past, as well as Connors, and Fort Smith. That right there demonstrates how tough it is just to make it out of our region.”
Although only one team moves on from each region to nationals, Grover said he feels there could easily be two teams out of Region II that should be in Hutchinson.
He added the second place team in NEO's league is usually better than most other region's first place finishers.
Grover stated much of NEO's success down the stretch was due to outstanding play and leadership from his sophomore class of players.
“I have a group of sophomores that know how to compete, but during the regular season they were just not consistent every night,” he said. “However, during the regional tournament I felt like they stepped up and gave everything out on the court.”
“I believe our success in the final game was due to the fact that we simply worked harder,” Grover noted.
Making the trip to the national tournament is an even more daunting task when one realizes out of nearly 200 Division I programs across the country, only 16 squads will be playing for the title.
That number equates to less than 10 percent of the nation's teams making the tournament.
“Unlike the NCAA, there are no at large bids in junior college basketball,” Grover said.
“There are some exceptionally good teams that won't be making the trip because they slipped up one game,” he said. “There are no second chances in JUCO basketball, you have to be mistake free or you go home.”
This will actually be the third time Grover has participated in the national tournament, but the first as a head coach.
His first appearance was with NEO in 1992, when Grover was a manager for the Golden Norsemen. His second time to make the journey to the tournament was in 2005, when he was an assistant for Coach Kelly Green's Arizona Western squad.
“I think the atmosphere in Hutch is a great place for a kid to play,” Grover said. “The arena will be packed during most games with around 6,000 people in the stands.”
Grover said one thing he has gained from his tournament experience that he will pass on to his team during game preparation, is to not get caught up in all the excitement and to remember fundamentals.
“The only thing we can do right now is talk to them about how many people will be watching and stress the importance of eliminating distractions,” he said.
“Each kid will be excited to play, so we must focus that energy into our game plan and not let them play strictly on emotion.”
“However, I want them to enjoy this experience because it is genuinely a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
NEO will play its first tournament game against Shelton State from Alabama on Tuesday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m.
District 1 (Region 1) - Eastern Arizona College (27-5)
District 2 (Region 2) - Northeastern Oklahoma A&M (26-7)
District 3 (Regions 3, 12, 15, 19, 20, 21) - Vincennes University, Ind. (28-4)
District 4 (Regions 4, 16) - To be determined
District 5 (Region 5) - South Plains College, Texas (26-5)
District 6 (Region 6) - To be determined
District 7 (Region 7) - Walters State Community College, Tenn. (31-1)
District 8 (Region 8) - Chipola College, Fla. (32-1)
District 9 (Region 9) - Eastern Wyoming College, Wyo. (23-11)
District 10 (Regions 10, 17) - Georgia Perimeter College (23-10)
District 11 (Regions 11, 13) - To be determined
District 12 (Region 22) - Shelton State Community College, Ala. (24-10)
District 13 (Region 18) - Salt Lake Community College, Utah (29-3)
District 14 (Region 14) - Paris Junior College, Texas (28-5)
District 15 (Region 23) - Itawamba Community College, Miss. (29-2)
District 16 (Region 24) - Southeastern Illinois College (27-6)