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November 27, 2002 Columns No Comments


Forget Chaminade, this was Historic

by Brian Seymour

After one of the greatest performances ever for a Division II college basketball team, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks and the people of Fairbanks are on top of the world — literally and figuratively.

The Nanooks became the first Division II team to win an eight-team Division I tournament by defeating Wisconsin-Green Bay, Nebraska and Weber State in four nights to win the BP Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks last weekend.

Of course, since it happened 4,000 miles and four time zones away from New York and Bristol, CT, the response of much of the sports media was a collective yawn, but the tournament championship could be an even bigger upset than Chaminade defeating No. 1 Virginia 20 years ago.

Remember, not even the Goliath-slewing Chaminade could follow up that victory by winning their tournament. Three straight Division I wins for a D-II team in three nights is a tall, tall order, even with home-court advantage.

I’ll grant that UWGB, Nebraska and Weber State isn’t exactly a murderers’ row of D-I programs, but we’re not talking either about beating up on the Blind Sisters of the Poor, either.

Weber State is a perennial contender for an NCAA Tournament spot in one of the most underrated conferences in the country, the Big Sky. Nebraska plays in the Big 12 Conference and should be able to accidentally recruit kids that could beat most other Division I schools and Wisconsin-Green Bay…well, they’ve had some big wins in the past, but yeah, they’re not very good right now.

Arizona’s Lute Olson and UCLA’s Steve Lavin are lauded for their recruiting prowess and they ARE very good recruiters, but seriously, how tough it is to convince a 17-year-old kid from Chicago to spend the winter in Tucson or Los Angeles? Girls wear bikinis in January in those places.

What about the recruiting prowess of seventh-year UAF head coach Al Sokaitis?

How about convincing a kid to attend school in a place where it can snow for the entire school year from September to May? How about a place less than 100 miles as the crow files from the Arctic Circle. How about a place that regularly experiences temperatures of 50 degrees below Fahrenheit in the winter? Sokaitis isn’t competing for the same kids Olson and Lavin are, but they do play Division II basketball in a lot of places more temperate than Fairbanks.

I had the pleasure of visiting Fairbanks for two weeks this past April and I can tell you that the people there are wonderful and are very proud of their area, as they should be. But give ME a choice between Alaska in winter and California or Arizona and you had better be one heck of a salesman, which Sokaitis apparently is.

The demands on the Nanooks are remarkably tough, besides even the weather. The closest road trip is 350 miles south to Anchorage. The typical road game is some 2,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. The Nanook ice hockey team thrilled the people of Fairbanks by making the CCHA Super Six last March.

Their reward? A 3,500-mile plane trip to Detroit to face an Ohio State team that spent 3 hours in a bus. If they had managed to beat Ohio State? A game against Michigan, which could have literally walked the 35 miles between Ann Arbor and Detroit faster than it took the Nanooks to fly there.

Yet, the exhaustion of traveling is not used as a complaint or excuse by UAF athletes. And there are other benefits to attending school in Fairbanks. The people of Fairbanks unconditionally support the Nanooks, who are pretty much the only game in town. On a clear day from the UAF campus, you can see Mount McKinley, perhaps one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world.

Beautiful peaks aside, it still doesn’t compete with girls in bikinis, so kudos to Al Sokaitis and his Nanooks for one of the best moments we’ll have this basketball season and for proving to us once again why we watch sports and root for the underdog.

     

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