Tuesday, March 31st, 2009
By Robb Hemmelgarn
Niekamp proud to capture D-II title
Findlay men's basketball coach Ron Niekamp's stoic, no-nonsense sideline demeanor during much of his teams' recent postseason would make most poker players envious.
On Saturday though, even Niekamp couldn't hold back jubilation as Tyler Evans' three-pointer in overtime pushed the Oilers ahead of Cal Poly Pomona, 56-53, and secured the NCAA Division II national title. It was the first Division II title for the school, as well as Niekamp, who just completed his 24th year leading the team.
"Between e-mails, people stopping in, and calls on two different phones, I have been very busy for the past couple of days," he smiled from his office. "We returned home yesterday and had a nice reception, and today it is back to business as much as possible. The big difference though, is that we have a nice big trophy to look at and remind us how all the hard work pays off."
Evans' off-balance shot on the inbounds play at the buzzer culminated an edge-of-the-cliff couple of weeks for the Oilers, where three of their final four games were overtime victories, while the fourth was a two-point win over Central Missouri in last week's semifinal contest.
On Saturday, the Oilers led Pomona by as many as 14 points in the opening half, but their advantage soon evaporated over the course of the final 20 minutes, which forced the game into overtime. Early in the extra session, Findlay's Josh Bostic, the Division II Player of the Year, retreated to the bench after picking up his fifth foul. Quickly, Niekamp's crew found themselves down by three.
Two consecutive turnovers though, helped the Oilers to tie things up. With just a handful of seconds remaining, Niekamp used a Cal Poly timeout to draw up the inbounds play with national championship implications. With less than a second on the clock, the pass was tossed to Evans, who swiftly launched the shot which swished the net as time expired.
"Before the season began, we knew that we could potentially be a very good team," Niekamp pointed out. "We had a lot of experience and talent, but to get to where we ended up was just amazing. To finish the year 36-0 is extremely difficult, especially as the year wears on and the target on our backs got bigger and bigger."
The final victory seemingly brought Niekamp full-circle from the days he was an All-Ohioan at St. Henry for coach Fran Guilbault in the mid-1960's. After high school, he went on to play for Miami University, where he lettered for the Redskins in 1971 and 1972 under long-time head coach Darrell Hedric. While at Miami, Niekamp played in one NIT and two NCAA tournaments.
"I have been fortunate through my career to play for and coach with some outstanding men," praised Niekamp. "I obviously can't copy exactly what they taught me, but I try to take a little bit from everyone and fit it to my style of coaching and teaching."
Following college graduation, he returned to Mercer County when he took his initial coaching job at Parkway High School. He led the Panthers for two seasons before moving on to Ottawa Glandorf, where he remained for five years. In 1977, he earned Ohio's Class AA Coach of the Year after guiding the Titans to the state basketball tournament that season and repeated the feat in 1978.
Prior to jumping to the college ranks, Niekamp was on the sidelines at Lima Senior High School for six years, where he once again steered his team to the state tournament in 1982.
Deciding it was time to hang up his whistle at the prep level, Niekamp compiled a career record of 208-86, but the time was right to move on. He was hired as the University of Findlay's head man before the 1985-86 campaign, and by his second season, the Oilers finished 25-4 overall and won a second straight NAIA District 22 title.
During his 24-year tenure at the school, Niekamp has weathered the shift from NAIA to NCAA and not missed a beat. In 24 consecutive winning seasons, his teams have chalked up 551 wins and just 174 losses, with this season obviously measuring as the most prolific.
"Through all of my years in coaching, one thing has remained a constant," he explained. "The camaraderie of the players and coaches needs to be strong to be successful. If you can have trusting bonds, it makes winning the big games even more special and you realize how working hard together for a common goal pays off."
Reflecting on the recently completed season, Niekamp doesn't hesitate to shower his assistant coaches with all due credit. Ironically, Charlie Ernst, Dan Shardo, and Tyler Niekamp all played basketball in the Midwest Athletic Conference.
"I ask a lot from my assistant coaches and they have always done an outstanding job for me," he commented. "I guess I didn't realize that we all played at MAC schools, but I think that all of our understanding and appreciation of what basketball means to west central Ohio, helps us to be successful in that regard as well."
With a list of personal milestones that includes induction into Miami University's "Cradle of Coaches", Niekamp is left to ponder what comes next.
"I am obviously not as young as I used to be and every year there are moments during the season that I am reminded of that," he readily admitted. "The long hours and bus trips take their toll over time, but I go year by year at this point. This season is no different. I will evaluate everything and think about what I still love about coaching and this will help me to determine what the immediate future holds. Ending the season with a victory and as national champions is a feeling you just can't top."
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