SOMERS — In the movies, Luke Reigel would’ve stood at the front of the bus and delivered an inspiring speech.
The members of the UW-Parkside men’s basketball team would’ve listened attentively to their coach. Perhaps one or two of the senior leaders would’ve spoken up, everyone would’ve cheered, somebody would’ve blasted uplifting music, then they all would’ve danced and sang the whole way home.
This isn’t the movies.
On the night of Dec. 19 and into the morning hours, the Rangers endured a long bus trip from Fort Smith, Ark., back to Kenosha.
The players slept. Reigel couldn’t.
After back-to-back losses to Rogers State and Arkansas Fort Smith — Reigel described the latter as one of the worst losses of his career after his team imploded down the stretch — at the Holiday Classic from Dec. 18-19 in Fort Smith, the Rangers were 3-6, and Reigel didn’t know how his team would survive the meat of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schedule that started after the New Year.
“I think (the trip) was somewhere around 14 hours, but you go through every scenario and why you’re in the situation you’re in and how you’re going to try to fix it, and you don’t sleep at all,” Reigel reminisced during practice Friday morning at the DeSimone Gymnasium.
“All the players fall asleep probably an hour into the trip, but you’ve got everything whirling around in your mind, hoping that you can find a solution to what your problem is.”
Well, if there was a turning point in Parkside’s season, that was it.
From the depths of that holiday trip, the young and inexperienced Rangers began to figure things out, and now they’re still alive on the last weekend of GLIAC play in search of a conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
Parkside (16-11 overall) won the GLIAC North Division title with a 13-7 conference mark, earned a No. 3 seed in the GLIAC Tournament and on Tuesday defeated No. 6 seed Lake Superior State, 75-68, at the DeSimone in a conference tournament quarterfinal.
That earned the Rangers a trip to today’s GLIAC Tournament semifinals at 4:30 p.m. against No. 7 seed Grand Valley State (17-12) in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Davenport, which earned the No. 1 seed and hosting rights for today’s semifinals and Sunday’s championship, is 26-3 and plays No. 5 seed Northern Michigan (17-11) in today’s first semifinal at 2 p.m.
The winners will square off at 2 p.m. Sunday with the conference title and an automatic bid to the national tournament on the line.
Being in this position may have felt like a pipe dream for the Rangers on that long trip back from Arkansas, but there were signs that the team wasn’t far off, even at that low point.
Parkside’s non-conference schedule adjusted rapidly when the team switched from the Great Lakes Valley Conference to the GLIAC for this season, didn’t have the Rangers play one home game against an NCAA Division II opponent, so a poor early record wasn’t exactly a surprise.
The team also went into the season with four redshirt freshmen on the roster and a lot of question marks. Reigel never questioned his team’s effort early on and knew it had talent, he just had to figure out a way to fit the pieces together.
So, instead of sleeping on the way back from Arkansas, he made some decisions.
“One of the things on the trip back is, I just made the decision of, ‘We’re going to tighten up our rotation and make sure players understand what their roles are a little bit more clearly,’” Reigel said. “I know that helped them. We had a lot of guys that were unproven, and so we were giving a lot of different guys chances.
“It had to come to a point where it was like, ‘OK, this is our rotation, we’re going to stick with it.’ Yes, it varies a little here and there, but not nearly as much as it did in the first 10 games.”
It also helped that the Rangers had 10 days off for their holiday break following the trip to Arkansas.
They returned by pummeling NAIA opponent Trinity International at home on Dec. 29 then resumed their GLIAC schedule — they went 2-2 to open the conference season before the holidays — with an 82-74 home with over Northwood on Jan. 3.
“We we tired of losing,” said fifth-year senior forward Chip Flanigan, Parkside’s do-everything leader. “We had four non-conference (losses), but two regional losses, which hurt us now (for an at-large national tournament bid).
“We went on Christmas break, so guys got off their feet, got with their families, and we just regrouped basically and turned everything around. ... We started playing well, and we started coming together more as a team. Guys figured out how serious Division II basketball is.”
Despite the early struggles, Flanigan — who was named to the All-GLIAC first team and the GLIAC All-Defensive Team on Friday — said he didn’t doubt the team could turn things around.
“I never doubt my team,” he said. “I knew how talented we were. We’re a young group and we’re new, so I never doubted us being in this position. I’m pretty excited. I’m not surprised.”
This weekend, like the GLIAC regular season, appears to be a toss-up.
The Rangers went 1-1 against each of the three other semifinal teams, and Grand Valley State was the only team to beat the Rangers at the DeSimone this season, 88-77 in a GLIAC opener on Nov. 29.
Parkside got revenge with an 80-79 overtime win at Grand Valley State on Feb. 9 when redshirt freshman center Joey St. Pierre tipped in a shot in the final seconds. The Rangers won that game in spite of 20 turnovers, a formula they don’t want to copy today.
“They’re athletic, they’re skilled at every position,” Reigel said. “It’s one of those things where we’re going to have to play very well defensively to be in the game, and we have to do a much better job with taking care of the ball than we did the last time. We had 20 turnovers last time. That just won’t fly.”
There is one caveat to this weekend that the competing teams won’t focus on but can’t ignore.
Davenport, previously an NAIA program, gained acceptance into the GLIAC last season. Per NCAA rules, the Panthers are completing Provisional Year Three and won’t be a full NCAA member, and therefore eligible to compete for NCAA Division II championships, until 2019-20.
That means that if Davenport advances to Sunday’s title game, the GLIAC will award the conference’s auto bid to the national tournament to whoever plays Davenport, win or lose. So, if the Panthers win prior to Parkside’s game against Grand Valley State today, the Rangers and Lakers will be playing for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Reigel would rather not think about that.
“We’re not even going to talk about it,” he said. “We know we need to beat Grand Valley, and that’s all that matters right now.”
And if you’re going to take a long bus trip — even if it’s not as far as Arkansas — you may as well plan to stay a while.
“I packed for two days, or three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” sophomore point guard Ramar Evans said. “... We’ve just got to go in there and play the way we’ve been playing. ... I expect tough competition and a couple wins.”