Western men play for national title this morning

  • Fri Mar 23rd, 2012 11:32pm
  • Sports

By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer

A small clique of faithful Vikings has been following the most historic season in the history of Western Washington University men’s basketball.

This morning, the rest of the nation gets a chance to see what all the hype is about.

The Vikings make their national television debut at 10 a.m. PDT, when WWU faces the University of Montevallo (Ala.) in the NCAA Division II championship game in Highland Heights, Ky. The game will serve as a lead-in to the NCAA Elite Eight coverage on CBS television.

“There’s obviously added magnitude,” WWU coach Brad Jackson said via telephone Friday, “but the thing is this team, all year long, has been pretty tough-minded. They’ve been able to handle every situation.”

But never have the Vikings faced anything quite as big as this. One might argue that it’s the biggest athletic event in school history, even though the timing of the event might not be on the fan base’s side.

Carl Schuessler, owner of Extremes Sports Grill in Bellingham, said his restaurant/bar won’t open today until its regular time of 11:30 a.m., based in large part on the unexpected nature of WWU’s deep run in the Division II tournament. The Vikings (30-5) beat Midwestern State and Stonehill on Wednesday and Thursday, leaving the growing fan base without much time to plan for this morning’s championship coverage.

“It’s all of a sudden,” said Schuessler, adding that the beautiful spring forecast in this part of the country also factored into his decision not to open Extremes at 10 a.m. “Everyone’s gotten excited about the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight (of the NCAA Division I tournament), and then — bam — the team from your own backyard is in it.”

From the championship site in Northern Kentucky, WWU’s Jackson said he’s heard rumblings of a fairly decent-sized group of fans making plans to be in town for today’s game.

“From everything we gather,” he said, “there’s a lot of buzz (in Bellingham).”

People who haven’t watched the Vikings this season probably don’t know some of the names that have carried WWU to unchartered territory, but in Bellingham, players such as Rory Blanche, Richard Woodworth and Mountlake Terrace High School graduate John Allen have become something like household names.

Blanche, a 6-foot-6 senior forward from Ashland, Ore., led the Vikings in scoring at 16.1 points per game and was named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference player of the year. Allen, who started his career as a walk-on at Washington State, was named the MVP of the West Region tournament. And Woodworth has averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the two victories in Kentucky.

Then there’s Jackson, who has become somewhat of a fixture at WWU while serving 27 years as head coach. In his second Elite Eight appearance, and first since 2001, Jackson has put his team in position for the biggest trophy yet.

“Honestly,” he said Friday, “I’m mostly excited for the players and what it represents — not only for this team, but also for some past teams. We’ve had an awful lot of good teams that have been close. This represents a lot to a lot of people within the basketball family at Western.”