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Golden era of Pioneer basketball enters second decade

Snow blasted against the windshield as the wind roared across the desolate landscape on Interstate 75 in Northwest Ohio. No music or podcasts, only the sounds of the heater running and the windshield wipers swiping back and forth. We all find different ways to slow down and reflect on things. For me, many times it’s in a car, driving alone down a desolate highway late at night from a Marietta Pioneer basketball game. After a recent game, I spent much of the drive home rewinding back the past decade this program has been through.

As a native of Southeast Ohio, I grew up on Pioneer basketball. Like many who are familiar with the program through much of the 90’s and 2000’s, visions of words like “The System” and “run and gun” and a mostly empty Ban Johnson permeate many of my nightmares. Peak seasons where win totals hit the 15-17 mark were surrounded by many years of below .500 basketball. Marietta was a baseball town through and through and the men’s basketball program never gave fans a reason to think any differently. That all changed April 18, 2007.

Athletic Director Debbie Lazorik announced the hiring of Jon VanderWal in the spring of 2007. Make no mistake, the college took a huge leap of faith in this hire. VanderWal had zero head coaching experience and had spent the previous 4 years as an assistant at Ohio Wesleyan University after having a standout career at Albion College in Michigan. VanderWal’s opening statement as head coach?

“I truly believe Marietta College has great potential and I look forward to leading the men’s basketball program toward achieving our goals.”

I’m not sure VanderWal even saw the heights this program would achieve under his guidance.

VanderWal’s youthful energy and passion for the game immediately yielded results in the recruiting sphere. Along with assistant coach Andy Bucheit, VanderWal put together a class of freshmen in the fall of 2008 that started a snowball effect that continues to this day. Names like Kevin Knab, Joe Puch, Trevor Halter, and Connor Kilpatrick grew quickly and broke out their junior year in a season still fresh in the minds of longtime Pioneer fans. A 27-4 record, OAC regular season and a program first conference tournament championship, and a captivating run to the Sweet 16 swept the community into such a fervor there was a black market and lines down Putnam Street for Pioneer tickets. It’s never stopped.

Since that year, 17-9 has been the floor for Pioneer basketball as the last decade saw eight 20-win seasons, six OAC championships (including five straight), seven NCAA tournament appearances, two Sweet 16s, and two Elite 8s. The only goal missing from this program is a Final Four appearance and a national title, which brings us to this year.

The Pioneers are off to another incredible start with a Top 10 national ranking and are in the hunt for a sixth consecutive OAC title. This year’s Pioneer squad may just end up being its best one yet. A hard-nosed group of workers, the Pioneers use offensive balance, domination on the glass, and a lock-down-in-your-face defense to grind opponents to dust over the course of 40 minutes. They’re truly a joy to watch. Ban Johnson, mostly empty during my days as a kid, has new renovations including a center-hung scoreboard complete with a lights-out pregame display that is the envy of schools across Division III and turns the head of opposing players and recruits every home game. The community support? It’s never wavered. Ban Johnson continues to be full and electric each and every home game creating one of the best basketball environments in small college basketball. In addition, Marietta has been in the Top 10 of NCAA basketball attendance 9 of the last 10 seasons.

With success, Jon VanderWal has, I am sure, inevitably received calls to leave for bigger programs and destinations. I remember thinking early on in his success that he was destined for a big stage and Marietta would be the answer to a trivia question as the starting point for his career. Yet, his commitment to the institution that gave him his first crack at head coaching and the roots he has planted in this community and program he built from scratch run deep. The community has shown that deep affection and support in return and the relationship between the city and program is unlike many schools at this or any level.

As a new decade dawns, the prospects of this program continue to be bright. Will it be an era that sees its first Final Four? A national title? Who knows what success we’ll be reflecting on a decade from now. That all remains to be seen but I do expect the success to continue, Ban Johnson to remain full, and new crops of players going into Pioneer lore. Those of you who follow the team already know this. To those that have not, what are you waiting for? While it may be many years before the sun sets on this golden era of Pioneer basketball, enjoy this ride and bask in it. Savor it. There are a ton of institutions and communities who’d love to be Marietta.

Ryan Whitnable is a 2011 alum of Marietta College. He is the host of This Week in Great Lakes Basketball and the creator of the Great Lakes Invitational. He lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife Erica.

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