TURLOCK — Had Cal State Stanislaus hung on to its 13-point lead in the final 2 minutes, 48 seconds of the West Regional final, the payoff would have come this evening.
It would have been the Warriors taking the court in Evansville, Ind., tonight against the University of South Carolina-Aiken in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight instead of Chico State, with the winner just a game away from playing for a national title.
Since that 81-80 loss to Chico on March 17, coach Larry Reynolds has slept like a baby – waking up crying every two hours. That, of course, is an overstatement, but it is safe to say that he’s replayed those final 168 seconds in his mind over and over.
“For four or five days it was all I could think about,” Reynolds said. “What could I have done, what should I have done, all the woulda, coulda, shouldas all were in there. Now it’s down to every other hour that it pops up in my mind, but that’s part of the beast. It’s not something you ever get rid of – it just buries itself in the back of your mind until it pops up again.”
Among the people in the stands that night in San Bernardino was athletic director Mike Matoso, who watches Warriors’ games with roughly the same level of nervous energy that Billy Beane brings to his viewing of Oakland A’s games. Matoso can’t sit for more than a few minutes without getting up and walking around the arena, but he always is there at the end.
“I’ve been involved with college athletics as an athlete, undergrad coach and administrator since I was 18, and that’s right in my wheelhouse as the toughest loss I’ve ever gone through,” Matoso said. “The kids worked so hard to get to that point and we had that game, and then it was tough to see them not be able to experience the Elite Eight.
“We were clicking at the right time. We could have won a national championship. Had we won that game, we would have been two wins from playing for the national championship.”
But because the Warriors’ remarkable season ended that night, the work already has begun inside Fitzpatrick Arena, where Stanislaus is trying to position itself for a different kind of payoff, one with long-term benefits, doing all it can to carry the momentum of its greatest Division II basketball campaign into next season and beyond.
It’s a matter of how much this year’s success opens doors to players who might not otherwise have thought of Stanislaus as an option, while off the court the athletic administration – led by Matoso – is doing everything it can think of to parlay this year’s wins into next year’s fan support.
“You get in a lot of conversations that you might not have gotten before, just based on your record,” said Reynolds, who Tuesday afternoon held his first meeting with the team since the March 17 loss. “When kids see that you have a successful program, that you’ve won 20 games, well, kids want to play for a winner. If you’re trying to recruit without having a winning record, when you’re trying to build something, it’s a lot tougher.”
And there are holes to fill, both inside and out, with the departure of three seniors. Marcus Bell emerged as the conference’s best big man in his one year on campus. Guard Sam Marcus was a one-man press break and one of the best floor generals in recent Warrior history. Taylor Bell came on at the end of the year to provide the scoring that got the Warriors the depth and scoring to reach the regional final.
“We have to get good players and that part of it isn’t a secret,” Reynolds said. “Good players make me a lot better coach and let us win a lot of games. We have to get out and find them. We have a lot of guys coming back who will be the backbone of the program next year, but we need to find pieces to add to that.”
Right here rests the largest difference between the construction of rosters in Division I and Division II. At the upper level, nearly all of the letters of intent have been signed and next year’s rosters have been set in stone.
But at this point last year, neither Marcus Bell, who had yet to complete his transfer from the University of Idaho, nor power forward Rob Walters, who was getting his academic house in order, were on the Stanislaus roster.
“Both came late and both played a huge part,” Reynolds said. “We’d like to infuse more freshmen into the program and continue to build the program that way, but we’ll be in the market for JC guys and bouncebacks.”
So it’s likely that the Stanislaus roster for the 2014-15 season won’t be set until the start of the fall semester. But if the school’s athletic administration waits that long to harness the energy generated by this year’s run, there will be little buzz remaining.
“All the feedback I received about the season was positive,” Matoso said. “People were excited about Stanislaus basketball and our athletic program in general. I think we established the environment we wanted at games in that first year, and this year we expanded it. At the end of the year I thought we had a great game-day experience.
“We saw the last couple of weeks how competitive it is, as well as how tough it is to get to that point. Now, as we start planning for next year, it’s about building and how we get better.”
Matoso wouldn’t elaborate on how he plans to build on this season’s success, other than to say he has a few tricks up his sleeve. But among those tricks has to be a plan to get the community at large involved in supporting the team, especially in the two months of the season played while most of the students are off campus.
“You’re always going to have to fight the semester break,” Matoso said. “We’ll work with housing and with different groups to see what we can do, but I think we need to come up with promotions to get people involved. It doesn’t have to be college kids.”
Yes, that final loss created a bitter taste that will stay everybody involved with the team on that final night – players, coaches, support staff and fans. But the sooner they’re able to step back and accept the excellence of a 23-9 season that ended one basket short of the Elite Eight, the sooner the entire program will be able to move ahead.
“Everyone in the program and in the university got a taste of what it’s like to get this far,” Matoso said. “And now we have to build around that, not just in basketball but in the entire athletic program.”