By Brent Luplow
When Sam Hargraves took over the Alma College men’s basketball program five years ago, the team was going through a downward spiral. Constantly finishing near the bottom of the MIAA conference and compiling just 13 wins in the three years prior to his arrival in 2011. It wasn’t what you would call the ideal starting job for a first time head coach.
But no one told Hargraves that, and if they did, he didn’t listen.
In just five short years Hargraves has taken the Scots from 9 wins in his first two years as head coach to 24 wins, a MIAA tournament championship and a trip to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament in year five.
To add to the accolades, Hargraves was recently named the NABC Great Lakes region coach of the year and the d3hoops.com Great Lakes region coach of the year.
Student assistant coach, Ivy Johnson (’16) has been through it all but is extremely satisfied with the way things ended, “These last four years have meant everything. We came in as freshman with a vision that not many people believed in. We struggled our first two years and everyone doubted us, but we stayed confident in our vision. Credit goes to [Coach] Hargraves for constantly believing in his players, especially when no one else did.”
While coaching is important, so is recruiting players that fit your “system” and Hargraves first recruiting class will arguably go down as one of the best in school history.
Senior captains, Scott Nikodemski (’16) and DJ Beckman (’16), have been instrumental to the turnaround and success of the program, as they became the program’s 9th and 10th career 1000-point scorers in school history this season. Nikodemski, the MIAA MVP and a 1st team d3hoops.com All-American, averaged 14.4 points and 5 assists per game this season. While Beckman averaged 12 points per game and 4 rebounds, while also setting the season record for three point field goals made in a season.
Along with Nikodemski and Beckman are four other seniors, JR James (’16), Ethan Woelke (’16), Gus Merriweather (’16), and Matt Launstein (’16) all who have seen the program come full-circle after struggling in the beginning part of their careers. All were instrumental in the turnaround of the Scots program and will always be remembered in Scots athletics history.
A big turnaround in the program occurred midway through last year when the defensive philosophy switched from man-to-man defense to zone defense after a struggling start to the season. This proved to be another stepping-stone during the process of developing a winning culture at Alma.
The process was something that was difficult for some of the players to grasp, especially the ones that came from winning high school programs.
Jason Beckman (’18) has been here only two years and didn’t see the total extent of the fixable damage, however, he credits starting out 0-8 last year as the driving force behind wanting so much success this year.
“I think the process has just been staying hungry and attacking everyday looking to improve as an individual and a unit. I do think this is the tip of the iceberg though. We need to keep making steps to where elite teams are as a program, and truly be that perennial powerhouse. I think avoiding complacency will be vital, and we need to keep finding ways to improve daily.”
Bryan Hines (’17), joined the team last year as a transfer and credits the competitiveness of his teammates and practices to the driving force for the turnaround, “I think we took the next step this year, we did this by making each other better everyday. We had the most competitive practices I’ve ever been apart of. When each player is pushing the guy to him like we did everyday this year you get the best out of your team”
The Scots have a lot to look forward to next year. They return six players who played significant minutes this year, and have won 16 straight home basketball games in the Art Smith Arena, spanning over one calendar year. Alma basketball is no longer the underdog now.
Student Coach Ivy Johnson put it perfectly: “As of right now, we are considered an up-and-coming “elite” program- and I suspect the program to be elite for years to come.”