EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in our ongoing ‘Where Are They Now?’ series, which highlights former area high school and college standouts, and their historic accomplishments.
Were the basketball gods plotting against the Mount Marty College men’s basketball team?
Twenty-two years ago, it sure felt that way to the Lancers.
They seemingly couldn’t catch a break, and when they finally did, they were tested once more.
Mount Marty was during the 1997-98 season the No. 1 seed for the South Dakota-Iowa Conference tournament, but suffered a loss — at home — to Dordt. There were then serious concerns that the Lancers would miss out on the NAIA national tournament in Nampa, Idaho.
A couple days later, they got the official word: They were in, with what they later learned was the final at-large selection.
As the team drove down to Omaha, Nebraska, to catch a flight to Idaho, there was a problem: Weather canceled its flight. The Lancers were forced to stay overnight and scramble to hop on a plane the following day.
No journey is ever entirely smooth, but Mount Marty certainly felt like it was being tested.
“It was like fate didn’t want us to get out there,” former head coach Jim Thorson joked.
“But we prevailed.”
In historic fashion, too.
Mount Marty, which had been the last team slotted into the 32-team national tournament field, made a dramatic run out in Idaho. The Lancers won their first three games, but fell two points short in the semifinals to the eventual national champion.
That performance — a 23-9 record, the SDIC regular season title and an appearance in the ‘Fab Four’ — remains as the most successful season in program history.
“It’s crazy that it was 22 years ago,” said Aaron Kranz, who was a junior forward that season for the Lancers.
“Time sure does fly by.”
That historic season is never far from the minds of those who were involved, according to Kranz, a 1999 Mount Marty graduate who now lives in California.
“The thing that comes to mind first is the lead we blew in the semifinal game,” Kranz said. “I hate to think negative first, but being a competitor, that’s what comes to mind.”
Upon finally arriving in Idaho, Mount Marty proceeded to win three games in three days: The Lancers defeated Embry-Riddle (Florida) 87-75 in the first round, then beat Siena Heights (Michigan) 73-72 in the second round, and then defeated Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio) 74-69 in the quarterfinals.
There was then finally a day off for the magnitude of what they were doing to finally set in for the Lancers, according to Mac Rops, the senior point guard and eventual first team All-American.
“We kept knocking off higher-seeded teams and rode that wave to the final four,” Rops said.
The Lancers kept riding that wave to the tune of a double-digit lead in the national championship game against Bethel (Indiana). That lead was eventually whittled away, and a last-second three-point shot missed and a put-back at the buzzer missed, and Bethel captured an 88-86 victory.
“That was crushing,” Rops said.
It’s now been 22 years since that semifinal loss and Rops said he hasn’t watched the tape of that game in years; that it’s still too painful.
“I keep thinking back to it all the time,” he said. “It was such a fun experience, but to think, we were two points away, you start to think about the ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves.’”
A Second Chance
There was very nearly no trip to Idaho.
When the Lancers suffered the home loss to Dordt in the SDIC Tournament, there was a belief by some — coaches and players included — that Mount Marty’s season was done.
“All of a sudden our hopes were dashed; we thought our season was over,” Thorson said.
Yes, the Lancers were nationally ranked at that point, but there were fewer at-large selections then than there are now.
“I’m pretty much an optimist anyway, so I kind of thought we’d be able to keep playing,” Rops said.
“I knew it’d be close, but I thought we had done enough.”
The day that the NAIA national tournament teams were announced, players and assistant coaches gathered in Thorson’s office to await word.
Then it came: Mount Marty was in.
The way the Lancers saw it, they were given new life.
“We got a second chance, so we thought, let’s make the most of it,” Kranz said.
Following that loss to Dordt, the Mount Marty players took a few days off, so when they officially heard that their season would continue, their batteries had been recharged, according to Rops.
“It reinvigorated us,” he said. “We got a second life; a second chance, and we weren’t going to waste that opportunity.”
When the Lancers arrived in Idaho and began watching other games, the idea of being at the national tournament didn’t exactly seem so daunting, according to Kranz — it also helped that they boasted the nation’s eighth-best defense.
“We concentrated on defense,” he said. “We thought that can be our leg up here, and it was.”
There was also the idea that Mount Marty would be playing a new team each game out in Idaho (depending on how far they advanced), as compared to playing the same conference team 2-3 times.
“We could run a lot of our sets, which made a big difference,” Rops said. “That was obviously a lot of fun to play different teams.”
‘Hit Your Knees’
Joe Van Goor’s audience included Lancer fans, supporters, parents of players who hadn’t made the trip and other interested listeners from the Yankton area.
Also included were a group of sisters from Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton.
He, and the rest of the Mount Marty contingent out in Idaho for the national tournament, had been told that the sisters had brought portable radios with them to their weekly Saturday afternoon meeting.
They wanted to make sure to hear every word from Van Goor for that day’s national quarterfinal game.
“Instead of their meeting, they sat and listened to their game,” Van Goor said.
Van Goor, who was broadcasting the national tournament for KVHT radio, had been told that during a tense moment late in the game that Sister Roswitha Zavadil said to the group, ‘Sisters, should we hit our knees now?’
The meaning of that phrase had been explained in a fax that had been sent to the Lancers by the sisters, who wished the players good luck and voiced their support from back home.
Two days later, Van Goor took advantage of the opportunity to give the sisters a shout out during a specific point late in the semifinal game against Bethel — he joked that he had license to do it.
He said to his listeners, ‘Alright sisters, time to hit your knees.’
Although the sisters did not make the trip out to Idaho, plenty of other Mount Marty fans did — the Lancers played their games in front of familiar faces at the Idaho Center, according to Van Goor.
“The crowds weren’t all that big, from what I can remember,” he said. “It was the teams and then the fans of each team.”
With every member of the 22-man team hailing from South Dakota, Minnesota or Nebraska, the Lancers were well accustomed to that kind of support, according to Kranz.
“We had parents at every game all season; literally every game,” he said. “We got the same type of support out in Idaho.”
And what the Lancers did out in Idaho was truly historic, according to Van Goor, who had two stints as the ‘voice of the Lancers’ for KVHT (1995-2000, 2003-12).
“That was an unbelievable run by a team that had really high expectations,” he said. “Being the absolute last at-large team in, Mount Marty wasn’t even part of the conversation.”
‘All Comes Together’
Having won 19 games the previous season and with a number of key players (including Rops, who had been a first team All-American that prior season), expectations were high for Mount Marty for the 1997-98 season.
All the pieces were in place for a special season, according to Thorson.
“They were the definition of a really good team, as far as everyone knowing their role,” said Thorson, who would go on to win 253 games in 18 seasons at Mount Marty. He retired after the 2012-13 season.
“Everybody was a star in their role.”
During that historic season, Rops (from Lennox) was the starting point guard, while his older brother Brock, also a senior, was a starting guard. At the wing position was senior Landon Klock (Lennox), while the interior featured Kranz (Watertown) and junior Ryan Krempges (Howard).
Off the bench came junior Terry Becker (Avon), junior Keith Rasmussen (Howard), sophomore Chris Maxwell (Parkston) and sophomore Matt Geiver (Sioux Falls), among others.
“I thought we had a very balanced attack in a lot of ways, along with a pretty good defense,” Thorson said. “We were able to match up quite well with teams.”
Beyond their on-the-court production, the Lancers were also successful in the classroom: They had seven players named to the NABC Academic Honor Roll, which led the NAIA that season.
“It was obviously a very intelligent group,” Thorson said, with a chuckle.
Mount Marty would win 19 games the following season after its historic run, but the program has not returned to the NAIA national tournament since.
Everything fell into place during that 1997-98 season, from the connections between the players, to their work ethic, and their collective production on the court, according to Kranz.
“We understood what it meant to work hard and what dedication meant to the team and our goals,” he said.
“When it all comes together, it’s very special.”
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