On Wednesday, March 8, three West Michigan teams begin the NAIA Division 2 Men's Basketball National Championship in Point Lookout, Mo.
Davenport, Cornerstone and Aquinas are all establishing dominance at their level, with talent deserving of a higher level.
“Those are the kind of kids we go for and we want to get a high quality kid that can play the game,” says Cornerstone head coach Kim Elders. “But, there [are] a lot of teams fighting for the same kids and we win some and lose some.”
West Michigan is a hot bed for basketball talent. There is also a good number of local college teams at all levels that are fighting for that talent.
As the NAIA Division 2 tournament begins, it’s natural to wonder how such small schools, like Cornerstone, were able to pluck this kind of talent from the bigger schools in the area. Then on top of that, add in the faith based interests of an Aquinas, Cornerstone, Hope or Calvin and you’d expect it to be hard to compete.
“That kind of makes the funnel smaller for us when we start the process but the process is there and we stay on these kids for a long time,” says Elders.
When you can’t offer the financial help and national coverage of an NCAA Division 1 school, you have to start early on the recruiting trail.
“I came to the kids camps when I was younger,” says Cornerstone junior forward Kyle Steigenga. “I knew the coaches quite a bit, I played AAU with Mike McLaughlin and Tyler Smith, so I had some connections with guys on the team.”
It’s all about relationships and finding a kid that understands what you are selling and what a smaller school can provide.
“I wasn’t getting caught up in trying to go to the highest level possible just to say I did,” says Steignenga. “I wanted to go to a level where I knew I would enjoy my experience and play for a coach like Coach E and it’d be a tremendous opportunity and something I’d never forget and it’s been great so far.”
“There was some interest to go higher than here, but in the end I just fit better here and this would be where I flourish better,” says Cornerstone sophomore forward Sam Vander Sluis.
And of course the best sales pitch is winning basketball.
So as Hope, Cornerstone, Aquinas, Davenport and even Grace Bible College continue their tournament runs, small school basketball will continue to beat expectations.
“There’s just a lot of talent here in Grand Rapids,” says Elders.
Cornerstone opens the tournament against Pacific Union at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday. Aquinas faces Union that afternoon at 5:45 p.m. and Davenport opens play Thursday at 1:45 p.m. against Tabor.
Follow the progress of the NAIA Division 2 Men's Basketball National Championship by clicking here.
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