The Cardinal Stritch University men’s basketball team won its first NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) Division II national championship on March 12 in Point Lookout, Mo., defeating the top seed, William Penn (Iowa) University, 73-59. The Wolves ended the season with a 35-3 record, and won their last 15 games.
“It’s an incredible feeling to win your last game; I’d never done that in my career in high school or college,” fourth-year head coach Drew Diener said. “To wake up in the off season knowing that you won the championship, finishing the season on such a high note is a great feeling.”
Diener, who took the team to the elite eight last year before being eliminated, said players on that team “got a taste of some success in the tournament,” and this year vowed to go further.
Darren Moore, a senior from Chicago, was named tournament MVP and an All-American. Derek Semenas, a junior from Rosendale, was also named an All-American.
Diener said team captain, senior Nick Ford from Fond du Lac, was the emotional leader on the team and is “super competitive.”
“He really instilled a belief in the team that we could win a national championship,” Diener said. “He carried us from a leadership standpoint and made everyone better.”
Coaching alongside Diener was his father Dick, a high school coaching legend who won a state championship in 1978 at Colfax High School and took second with Fond du Lac High School in 1987 and 2002. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association hall of fame in 2007.
“It’s a big time learning experience for me,” Diener said about coaching with his dad. “He’s an awesome assistant coach from the standpoint of knowing he’s ultimately not going to agree with every single thing that I do … but he has a great feel for when to say things and when to question things.”
Diener, named National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC)/NAIA UPS Coach of the Year and Rawlings NAIA Division II National Coach of the Year, also credited his dad, saying he “makes the coaching staff better.”
The NAIA allows schools to offer scholarships and several members of the Cardinal Stritch men’s team have partial scholarships but take odd jobs around the campus and off season to pay for the difference.
“There’s guys who get jobs in the residence halls … dean’s office, athletic department front office; they find a way to make extra money,” Diener said, adding it’s very difficult to work during the season.
James Loftus, president of the university and one of the team’s biggest fans, said the scholarships vary for each individual but ultimately it’s the education that gets the biggest interest from prospective students.
“We’re not recruiting athletes; we’re recruiting student athletes,” Loftus said.
Loftus, a member of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, said the success of the team is good for the university.
“It shows people there’s an opportunity to succeed here at Stritch, both in the classroom and on the playing field,” Loftus said. “It also increases the general interest of a wider student population who want to be part of a place that has some energy going.”
Cardinal Stritch University will add eight men’s and women’s teams for the 2013-2014 school year: golf, tennis, bowling, and track and field.
“(Basketball) increased our interest all around, not just in basketball but other athletic programs,” Loftus said. He added that the new teams would have been part of the university had the men’s basketball team not won, but it made it easier.
Being a Catholic university, Loftus said, is “part of the attraction” for student athletes.
“They’re coming to a place that’s value-based and faith-filled and that’s what they want to be a part of,” Loftus said.
Semanas, a member of El Dorado Parish, Woodhull, has played on the team for three years.
“It’s crazy, it’s finally setting in,” Semenas said about winning the championship. “All the hard work that we put in, as a kid, even growing up, and this year, has finally paid off.”
While he said he’s proud to have been a member of the championship team, Semenas said, as defending champs, the team must remain focused.
“We just can’t get content with being champions last year,” Semenas said. “We got to come out and work as hard as we did last year. We know what it takes to get there and it’s not going to be easy.”
Teams will be focusing on Cardinal Strich next year, he said, predicting the team will have a target on its back because of the season it just enjoyed.
The Wolves were honored on the court of the BMO Harris Bradley Center at halftime of the April 3 game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves. The crowd cheered loudly as the Wolves’ accomplishments were read over the PA system.
“The general response and significant applause and excitement in the entire arena was testimony that Stritch is doing some good things and there’s support in the community,” Loftus said.
With five key players returning next year, expectations are high for the Wolves, but the goal remains the same.
“My expectations are that the coach remain the teacher,” Loftus said. “He gets people together for a common cause and he enables them to work together.”