Luke Reigel isn’t going to take time to pat himself on the back.
For one, he’d never do that, at least not publicly.
For another, the UW-Parkside men’s basketball coach is too busy preparing his team for tonight’s Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against Lake Superior State at the DeSimone Gymnasium.
Lastly, after getting to a point where his program reached five consecutive NCAA Division II Tournaments before the Great Lakes Valley Conference gave it an uppercut and a kick to the teeth for good measure last season, Reigel won’t consider his program “back” after a 15-11 regular season that leaves the Rangers needing to win the GLIAC Tournament to get into the national tourney.
So, when I asked Reigel on Monday if he did sit back and reflect on how quickly the program went from last year’s bottom to going 13-7 in conference play and winning the GLIAC North Division title in its first year in the conference — the Rangers’ fifth division title in the last seven seasons between the GLVC and the GLIAC — he paused for a moment and did concede one thing.
He said it was a “pleasant surprise.”
Well, I’ll tell you this: It’s a whole lot more than that.
Reigel’s in his 16th season leading the Rangers, and I’ve seen him do some remarkable things with the program.
Namely, I watched him turn Parkside from a cellar dweller into a power in the extremely difficult GLVC East Division. And he did it with basically one arm tied behind his back, working for a Parkside athletic administration that could be described as — I won’t hold back here — frugal, incompetent and more interested in pinching pennies than having its programs win games.
But what Reigel’s done with this year’s team may have surpassed all of that, even.
Last year was a devastating blow for all of Parkside’s athletic programs, and Reigel never minced words when talking about how upsetting it was for himself, his coaches and his players.
After working so hard to build the Rangers into a perennially winning program, Reigel had to sit and watch as the incompetence of Parkside’s former athletic administration and the apparent vindictiveness of the GLVC dished out severely punitive measures to his program, the most significant being it couldn’t participate in the postseason last year, due to compliance violations.
Never mind that the men’s basketball team, among other Parkside programs, was found to have committed no violations at all. It didn’t matter.
Who knows how much damage that did?
Recruiting was surely affected, which could have a ripple effect that will hurt for years. It’s too soon to tell.
And when the program jumped ship from the GLVC to the GLIAC — a move everyone was beyond thrilled to make — Reigel had to rapidly alter his non-conference schedule this season.
The collateral damage of that — not that it still wasn’t worth switching conferences, of course — meant the Rangers played four of their six non-conference games, plus two exhibition games against NCAA Division I opponents, away from home.
Parkside’s youth and inexperience surely played a part in the Rangers’ slow start, but it’s not hard to imagine that — given the team is 11-1 at home — with a couple more non-conference home games, maybe Parkside would be in position for an at-large berth to the national tourney and not in need of winning the conference tournament to get in.
Nonetheless, a GLIAC North title and a first-round conference tournament home game — and possibly more — are huge accomplishments considering the program had to scramble to even field a competitive team last season.
Now, it’s worth noting that Reigel has had much support in getting the program out of last year’s misery.
Athletic director Andrew Gavin, who came aboard in August 2017, and his staff are everything the previous athletic administration was not. Gavin has the program looking like, well, a real NCAA program.
And Reigel’s coaching staff this season has worked just as hard as he has.
Associate head coach Keven Bradley, in his fifth season with the Rangers, serves as Reigel’s right-hand man. Tom Reigel, Luke’s father, Evan Morrissey and Reid Gibbs are the three voluntary assistants.
Reigel wouldn’t sing his own praises, but his assistants? Different story, even if Tom Reigel might tease Luke about complimenting him if he reads this.
“I think this is the best way I’d put it: I’m very proud of the work our staff has put in this year,” Luke Reigel said. “My assistants have done an unbelievable job, whether it’s working with players before practice, breaking down film with individuals, getting on the road recruiting. … This might be the best job my assistants have ever done throughout the year.
“Keven has always done a fantastic job, but the three volunteer assistants this year we have that love the game and love working with young men (have) helped as well.”
And so, one year after arguably the worst news a program can get, here the Rangers are, back in the postseason and looking for more.
If I’ve learned one thing in my time covering this program, it’s this: Never underestimate a team coached by Luke Reigel.