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Archive for February 2012

Kent State Elite Eight: A Reunion and Reflection

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Members of the Elite Eight Men's Basketball team returned to Kent State for its ten year reunion.

When I chose to attend Kent State University after I graduated high school in 2001, the deciding factor was its top notch journalism/mass communication department. At the time I had career aspirations of ultimately becoming a TV or radio broadcaster for a professional baseball team. Those thoughts are now pipe dreams as my career and education paths have taken a few different turns down a number of winding roads.

While academics and career goals were the main reason, as they should be for my college choice, I have no shame in admitting another big factor in my decision was the amazing basketball team. When I was looking at colleges my senior year of high school I not only investigated the campuses and academics, but also their athletic teams. Being a sports nut, if I was going to go to college, I wanted to at least enjoy going to sporting events during that time period. While Kent State has had a miserable football program for decades, every other sport seemed to excel. The men’s basketball team in particular. I followed the team the entire season, watching them win both the Mid-American Conference East division, conference tournament, and finally upset Indiana in the first round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Cincinnati to end the season.

It was not an easy transition for me once the college school year began. I was overcome with homesickness like many freshmen are. Shyness and a fear of meeting new people on my own was also something I had difficulty overcoming. While struggling to adjust to college life I completely overlooked a better than usual Kent State football season in the fall of 2001. Though I did well in my classes, I still felt like something was missing in my life. That all changed once basketball season started.

From eighth grade through high school I put my love of math and sports to good extracurricular use as the basketball team’s statistician. As the Kent State basketball season drew near I felt that itch to get involved with the sport again. After watching the team’s first game from the stands at the MAC Center in awe, I sent an email to coach Stan Heath telling him what I did in high school and offering to do the same. Of course I didn’t realize that at the college level the school already has people within the athletic department to handle all of the team’s statistics. However, the team’s director of basketball operations (graduate assistant coach) did offer me a role as a volunteer student manager to help out with team drills during practices.

The day after I received the email I showed up at the MAC Center and nervously made my way to the basketball court with the other student managers to set up practice while the team warmed up. I followed along with whatever instructions I was given. Running clocks, filling water bottles (no, I did not consider myself a glorified water boy), and setting up other equipment while watching the team practice.

Throughout the entire three hours I kept a low profile and did not attempt to interact with any of the players. Partially because I was star struck that I was actually in the presence of such amazing college athletes. Also because I thought as a freshmen at the next level I was not worthy of their attention. To me, college players were at that same level of prominence as professionals. My thought process changed entirely after practice ended.

I was doing my job clearing the court of practice equipment. Again just trying to go about my business and keep a low profile. One of the players approached me.

“Who are you? Where’d you come from?” the player asked.

His tone, the look on his face, and demeanor completely caught me off guard. Being the humble and shy person I was at the time, I was instantly intimidated. I explained that Coach Heath brought me in as a student manager and that was my first day.

“Are you the squirrel master?” he asked.

Again, I was completely confused. I had no idea what he was asking and why. After I told him that he repeated his question. Luckily, one of the players stepped in and helped me figure everything out. That player was Kent State’s star guard Trevor Huffman. He explained the player who confronted me was Matt Jakeway, a player who transferred to Kent State that season and was sitting out due to NCAA rules. He was also the team’s jokester. Huffman told me not to worry about anything Jakeway said, just agree with him, know that he was playing around, and that they were happy to have me there.

The next time I made it to practice (I could not attend every day due to my class schedule) Matt Jakeway confronted me once more. He denied everything Trevor Huffman told me, but was cool about it. He then explained his question from the last practice.

“A squirrel is one of those things that come out of nowhere and you say ‘look, squirrel!’ That’s what you did. You just showed up out of nowhere. So now you’re the squirrel master.”

After that conversation Jakeway explained to the entire team the new nickname he had endeared to me. It stuck because for that entire season and a couple seasons beyond, I was known to the Kent State men’s basketball team as Squirrel. I did not mind it at all because it was not an insult. The guys treated me with respect, like a little brother. Also, with as many black squirrels running around Kent State’s campus as there were, something I had never seen before, it seemed to make sense.

I was offered an opportunity to travel with the team and sit on the bench during games. But I told the coaches I could contribute much better during games as a rowdy fan in the stands because I would not be able to contain my excitement and enthusiasm as I would have to do sitting on the bench. I also felt it was necessary to attend class every day as a freshman to get my education off on the right foot instead of missing many classes and possibly crucial exams due to team travel when I wasn’t even a player. Plus I hated the idea of wearing a shirt and tie for every game as I would be required to do. I was much more comfortable in my Kent State t-shirt and jeans.

So for the entire 2001-02 season I did exactly what I said I would do. I showed up to practice when I could and did what I could to help the team prepare. On game days and nights I was a loud, colorful, enthusiastic Kent State fan screaming to no end in the stands as the Golden Flashes racked up win after win on their home court. The players and coaches continued to embrace me as a part of their team. Talking with me more during practice about more than just basketball, making sure I was doing well in my classes, and being the big brothers I never had. While most college freshmen were going to fraternity parties, hanging out on campus, and trying to figure out how to smuggle beer into their dorm rooms, I was embracing the Kent State basketball team right back.

After seeing the Golden Flashes dominate the Mid-American conference (17-1, undefeated at home), it came as no shock to me when they steamrolled through the conference tournament and clinched a third NCAA tournament berth in four years. What did shock me was the subsequent events of March Madness.

I freely admit, until I began college my love of sports was mostly restricted to the professional ranks. I rarely watched any college sports, so I had no knowledge of the NCAA tournament or its “Cinderella stories.” I was fully prepared, despite the previous season’s first round upset over Indiana, for Kent State’s season to come to a quick ending.

I was in class during the first round victory over Oklahoma State. I caught the end of the game, happy they won one game, but remembered how the team was blown out in the second round the year before. So obviously I was surprised when the Flashes beat second-seeded Alabama (featuring former Cleveland Cavalier Mo Williams) again in decisive fashion.

After that win, I knew a little bit more about the upset factor in the NCAA tournament and knew better than to ever doubt the team that adopted me. Of course I was parked right in front of the television in my Wright Hall dorm room when the team took on third-seed Pittsburgh on primetime television in the “sweet sixteen” round. It was a tight fisted, back and forth battle all the way through. At the end of overtime the Flashes had pulled out another Cinderella upset, staging a rematch with the Indiana Hoosiers, who pulled off a major upset of their own over Duke earlier in the night. I can still remember the cheers all throughout campus and feel the shaking from the noise throughout Wright Hall from celebrating students that night.

Because the Flashes had beaten Indiana handily in the first round of the 2001 NCAA tournament and held their own quite well on this Elite Eight run, I was extremely optimistic of a trip to the Final Four. That would not be the case as the Hoosiers were lights out and Kent State was the exact opposite. When the game was over I sat in stunned devastation as the team I had given my heart to that season was defeated, ending an amazing season. As my dad said to me repeatedly that game while I had numerous spaz attacks over what I was witnessing, “you can’t beat a team that shoots 80 percent from three point range.”

I continued my volunteer work as a student manager for one more season until a greater commitment to my classes and a stronger focus on my dream of a broadcasting career took over. Even after leaving my post with the Kent State basketball team, the players and coaches who remained after the Elite Eight season still treated me like one of their own.

Over the years players from that team have returned to Kent State for visits and reunions. The stars from that team, Trevor Huffman, Andrew Mitchell, Demetric Shaw, and San Diego Chargers all-pro tight end Antonio Gates have all had their numbers retired by the school. I have had friends stare at me in shock when those players and others from the team acknowledged me during games they attended.

On this season’s Bracket Buster Saturday, Kent State celebrated a ten year reunion of the Elite Eight team. Many of the players could not return for the game because they continue to play basketball professionally. The ones who did signed autographs before the game and received a standing ovation at halftime after seeing a highlight video of their accomplishments from that season on the screen at the MAC Center.

Standing in line for the autograph table, I could only wonder if the players who made it back would remember me after so much time away. The smiles on the faces of Bryan Pellegrino, Anthony Wilkins, Brian Howard, Demetric Shaw, and Antonio Gates as I shook their hands spoke volumes. They have all moved on to bigger and better things. They had met thousands, or millions in Gates’ case, of fans. But they remembered the kid who appeared out of nowhere ten years ago as a freshman at practice one day. I pride myself on knowing Antonio Gates (@AntonioGates85) before he was famous.

The Kent State basketball program is a tradition that never graduates. Each season the team treads the same waters of excellence as the season before it. As great as they have all been, none have reached the same level of success and dominance as the one I latched onto my freshman year. Reliving the memories of that season, it meant so much more to me than just being a basketball fan. It was the reunion of a something that welcomed me to Kent State with open arms.

The basketball team gave me that something I felt was missing. It was a feeling that I truly belonged. Until that time there were only a few instances in my life when I had that feeling. The experience set in motion five (though I did feel some doubt during my sophomore year) terrific years I would not trade for anything. Now, as a graduate of the school, I am a Kent State Golden Flash for life.

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