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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 25 2012

Schnepf: MSUM sees men's basketball growth, but no NSIC title

Moorhead - The last time a men’s basketball team from Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse won a conference championship, Chad Walthall was a sixth-grader trying to figure out how to shoot and dribble.

Saturday night, a 43-year-old Walthall was pacing the Nemzek sideline hoping – just hoping – his Minnesota State Moorhead basketball team could capture a share of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship. Diehard Dragons fans, who haven’t experienced such a title since 1982, were hoping too.

The three-decade drought continues.

After a 64-50 loss to Wayne State, the Dragons’ slim hopes ended. Even a win wouldn’t have garnered that coveted title. That’s because Bemidji State won to become the conference champ.

“That makes me feel better,” Walthall said after watching his team lose its second straight home game. “But hey, let’s look at the big picture … where we are and where we have come from. We’ve made tremendous strides the last two years.”

In the 14 years prior to Walthall’s arrival two years ago, MSUM had won only 40 percent of its game and posted just two winning conference seasons. Last year, Walthall led the Dragons to their first overall and conference winning season since 2003.

This should come as no surprise.

As a Division III head coach, Walthall won 116 games in seven seasons at Loras College in Iowa, including a trip to a national tournament. As a Division I assistant at Iowa, he was the lead recruiter for the Hawkeyes and served as an interim head coach for four games.

Now Walthall has found himself in one of Division II’s toughest conferences.

“Relatively speaking, this is the toughest league I’ve ever been a part of,” Walthall said. “Talent wise, it is so equal. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. If you don’t have your best game, you are going to get beat.”

Like Saturday night when Wayne State needed a win just to get into the conference tournament that starts Wednesday.

The Division II NSIC is a major upgrade from the NAIA Northern Intercollegiate Conference – the league the Dragons won 30 years ago. In the last six years, NSIC member Winona State has won two national championships.

“If anyone would’ve told me a team from our league would’ve won a Division II national title, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Dave Schellhase. “And if someone had told me Winona was the team to win a national title, I really wouldn’t have believed it.”

Schellhase is, of course, the man who coached the Dragons to their last conference title. The Dragons’ unlikely run for this year’s title certainly conjured up some memories from 1982. That’s when a 37-year-old Schellhase coached the Dragons to an NIC championship with the likes of Matt Brundige, Walt Whitaker, Michael Howard, Chris Baxter and Manuel Stancil.

“That was just a fun team,” said Schellhase, now the 67-year-old dean of students at Logansport (Ind.) High School.

Schellhase, who compiled 298 wins during his two coaching stints at MSUM, was known for his run-and-gun teams. Walthall, who left his hometown of Staples to play football at Concordia, remembers watching a few Cobbers-Dragons games.

“With Schellhase, it was run, run, run and when in doubt, run some more,” Walthall said. “He wanted to score 100, 200 if he could. I’m too much of a control freak to go quite that far.”

So just how far can Walthall take this Dragons program? Time will only tell. But Walthall likes the direction it is headed – including a home playoff game on Wednesday.

“We are probably ahead of schedule, quite frankly,” Walthall said. “We’re just not a mature product yet. It’s a learning and growing process. We’re not where we want to be, but we are getting there.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com. Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com