Pilots wrap up ‘storybook season’ at NAIA nationals

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Fresh off their home court victory against Indiana Wesleyan University in the Crossroads League Championship game, the men’s basketball team is heading to the NAIA national tournament. This collegiate level tournament, consisting of 32 teams, is in a win-or-go-home format, and will prove to be the Pilots’ biggest and final test of what has proved to be a season for the Bethel lore books. 16998835_10155116277669365_1439701386700483807_n The Pilots enter tournament play ranked number three in the national rankings, with a conference play record of 16-2 and an overall record of 29-4. Consistently one of the most elite conferences in the nation, the Crossroads League has never given its teams an easy schedule. Four teams from the Crossroads League will be represented in this year’s national tournament: Bethel College, Indiana Wesleyan University, University of Saint Francis and Taylor University. The Pilots earned a number one seed birth, alongside Indiana Wesleyan University, Union College and Cornerstone University. Bethel will take on number eight seed, Calumet College of St. Joseph Crimson Wave in their first-round matchup. The game will take place on Thursday March 9 at 8:30 p.m. EST. To be eligible for the national tournament, a team must (a) win its conference tournament, (b) win its regular-season championship, (c) finish as a runner-up in the conference tournament, or (d) host the national tournament, this year’s host being the College of the Ozarks. This season, the Pilots became eligible for the national tournament through winning both the regular-season championship and the conference tournament championship. As unbelievable as it may seem, the success building up to this point for the Pilots has been no tall tale. Long-time men’s basketball head coach Mike Lightfoot announced his retirement in the early months of this season, but that hasn’t stopped the Pilots’ success. Lightfoot has seen many teams grind out decisive, yet hard-fought, victories en-route to the 792 career victories he has totaled over his 30-year coaching career. However, this year’s team has overcome numerous rounds of adversity to attain the tremendous season they’ve put together. Seniors Clay Yeo, Caleb Oetjen and Ryan Wassink have each gone down with an injury at some point during this season. They’ve suffered close, one-point losses to Viterbo University and Southeastern University as well as an overtime loss at Taylor University. Despite these disappointments, the Pilots have also found tremendous success from numerous individuals. Players like Nick Kindig and Jordyn Coon have provided key senior leadership through their new roles within the Pilots’ starting core. This team also boasts both the 2017 Crossroads League Player of the Year and the conference’s Coach of the Year: Oetjen and Lightfoot, respectively. The Pilots will look to lay it all out on the line yet again as they look to send their seniors and Coach Lightfoot out on a high note. Many teams see even a tournament appearance as a major milestone. For some teams, winning a game is as good as a championship banner. For the Pilots, it seems like the stars have aligned and the timing is just right for them to be able to achieve something special. Only time will tell. During this season, the Pilots had a winning streak that lasted 15 games, an impressive feat, to be sure. However, what they look to do now may be their most impressive feat yet. Five victories in a row is all that stands between this Pilots team and achieving one of the most impressive sign-offs for Coach Lightfoot and this almost fictitious storybook season.
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