VanderWal has reunion with mentor

Jon VanderWal had not one but two basketball reunions at the NCAA Division III tournament this past weekend at Ban Johnson Arena.

On Friday night, the 10th-year Marietta College men’s basketball boss coached against veteran Kevin Vande Streek of Calvin (Mi.) College, and the Pioneers claimed an 83-66 decision.

Then, the following evening at the BanJo, VanderWal dueled with No. 23 Guilford (N.C.) College head man Tom Palombo, who helped mentor him at Defiance College. The seventh-ranked Pioneers ended up winning 88-64 to advance to the Sweet 16.

“I have so much respect for Coach Vande Streek and his program,” said VanderWal of the Knights’ coach. “He recruited me out of high school. I was this close to going there (Calvin).”

VanderWal ended up attending and playing ball at Albion College.

“They (Knights) actually won the national championship (1999-2000 season) my junior year,” VanderWal said. “So, that stunk for me a little bit.

“But I’m a Dutch Christian Reform kid from northern Michigan, and that’s probably what their entire team is. A lot of my family members have gone to Calvin. There’s a big history there for my family. So, obviously, when I went to Albion and played against Calvin all those years, it was always kind of an intense game for me.”

VanderWal paused.

“So, when we (Pioneers) saw that we were playing them,” he continued, “it had a little extra to it for me.”

VanderWal said that he and Vande Streek spoke on the day before the game.

“We talked yesterday,” VanderWal said. “He’s a super nice guy. A class act all the way around.”

The feelings are mutual.

“A couple of years ago, I was an NCAA site rep at Augustana when (Marietta) played there,” said Vande Streek, who has been at the Calvin helm for 21 years. “It’s been fun to see him to go from a player to an assistant coach — at places under a couple of really good coaches — to become a head coach.”

Vande Streek gave VanderWal a lot of credit.

“In Division III,” the Calvin boss said, “it’s harder than any other level to take a program that’s not been good and turn it into consistently being good.

“Jon’s done it like very few have done. He’s done a great job, and he’s got another really good team. I’d love to see him keep on going (in the tournament).”

VanderWal smiled.

“He stopped me in the handshake line (after Friday’s game),” he said. “He said if our kids defend this way every game, we’re going to be playing for awhile. That was nice of him to say. It’s the truth, too. If we move that fast and play that hard defensively, I think we’ve got a chance to make a run.”

Well, that NCAA run continued Saturday when the Pioneers routed the Quakers, 88-64.

“I go from one kind of a unique game to the next,” VanderWal said.

I got my college coaching career under Coach Palombo at Defiance College. He was head coach there.”

VanderWal was an assistant at Defiance for two years.

“I coached two years with him, and we built a very close friendship,” VanderWal said. “He mentored me and did a lot for me. It’s kind of neat having him here. Not so neat having to play against him. I know (him) and I know Guilford’s extremely well-coached. I think they’re one of the best defensive teams we’ll see all year.”

Palombo said that VanderWal has “done an unbelievable job” with the Marietta College men’s basketball program.

“They didn’t win very many games, and now, they’re perennial national contenders,” Palombo said. “I’m really proud of him and what he’s done here. The crowd’s unbelievable and what he’s created is very good. I’m very impressed.”

Ron Johnston is a Marietta Times sports writer, and can be reached at rjohnston@mariettatimes.com.

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