Hard work pays off for Falcon hockey, men’s basketball
By: Matt Markey
Dan DeSalvo sensed the expectations the first time he entered the BGSU Ice Arena as a Falcon, but he also was comfortable in a place where mediocrity is not part of the vernacular, where his role would be to help put the luster back on one of the University’s most decorated programs.
“Before you walk into this building, every player knows what the history and the tradition is here,” the senior from Illinois said. “This is a place where they have won a national championship and where a lot of guys have gone on to play in the NHL, so the bar is set pretty high. You want to do everything in your power to restore and uphold that level of accomplishment.”
Anthony Henderson experiences a similar tug when he takes the court for the Falcon men’s basketball team. Bowling Green has been the home of legends such as Nate Thurmond, Howard Komives and Antonio Daniels, as well as iconic head coach Harold Anderson. With nearly 100 years in the books, the basketball program had earned a lot of respect and recognition.
“As an athlete and a competitor, you want to be someplace where you feel like winning really matters,” the senior from Toledo said. “Some people might think that puts a lot of pressure on you, but I’ve always felt like it was a good burden to carry around. You can sense the pride, and you want to get better every day so you can establish your team’s place in that history.”
Both programs are experiencing resurgence after an uncharacteristic period of struggles. The Falcon hockey team used a strong start to forge its November return to the national rankings, the first time Bowling Green had received that distinction since the 2007-08 season.
The climb back to national prominence has continued, with the Falcons achieving the No. 6 spot in the poll by late January. DeSalvo said he can appreciate the significance of the move, since the program won just five games in the 2009-10 season, but had improved its mark each season since, including a 18-15-6 record last year.
“The guys have gotten closer each year, and we’ve pushed each other more, and that kind of pressure to get the job done means a lot more coming from your teammates – it’s the brotherhood,” he said. “You take that responsibility personal when it comes from a teammate.”
When the Falcons first surfaced in the national rankings, DeSalvo said it was a small but significant reward for all of the work that had been done to bring about that return to prominence for a program that owns the 1984 national championship.
“It was nice to be ranked, but we felt more like it was a case of finally getting the recognition we deserved,” he said. “It’s an honor and we’ve worked hard to get there. It’s been a battle, but finally we’re in a good position, and ranked, and that’s something Bowling Green hasn’t seen in quite a while.”
Hockey head coach Chris Bergeron, now in his fifth season with the Falcons, said it has been a long climb for the program, and one that was accomplished by remaining locked in on the business at hand.
“This was once the place to play in the country, and that had obviously changed, so we set out utilizing a daily process. That was the best way for us to go about things—‘let’s try and be great today’—and to look at the small picture,” he said. “That approach helped us, and when we were struggling we didn’t get caught up in the standings, the record or the rankings. We only worried about today.”
So when the incremental improvements compounded, and there was Bowling Green back in the national picture early in the 2014-15 season, Bergeron did not waver from that approach.
“We’re trying to do the same thing now. We didn’t get caught up in the rankings when we weren’t involved, so let’s not change that,” he said.
Bergeron is well aware that Bowling Green hockey comes with a significant degree of expectations, given the program’s rich history, but he sees that as a positive, if the subject is approached the right way.
“I want them to feel a responsibility. I don’t want it to be a burden or a heavy weight, but I want it to be a good feeling that they are looking forward to living up to that responsibility of what BG hockey has been, and what it can be,” he said.
“The bar can’t be set any higher, because this is a place with a national championship, but the responsibility of living up to that bar is there. There’s progress being made, and it’s a program again. The guys that are here now are leaving Bowling Green hockey better than they found it.”
Men’s basketball coach Chris Jans arrived late last March, fresh off a major role in a 35-1 record with Wichita State, where he had been the top assistant. He inherited a BG program that had experienced just one winning season in the previous nine years, and one that had earned little in the way of expectations around the Mid-American Conference.
“We just had to roll our sleeves up and get to work,” said Jans. “I saw a group of guys that were out of shape, but from the first time we met, they were hanging on every word. They were receptive to change, and that’s been the thing that has probably gotten us to this point, this fast.”
The Falcons, who were picked second-last in their division in pre-season media polling, won four straight to open the season, and by mid-January they had a 12-4 record, already matching the win total from the previous season. This was a different group, Jans had learned.
“A lot of times, for myriad reasons, when you have a coaching change guys always leave the program, but here everybody stayed,” he said. “What I learned from meeting with the players was that these kids like going to school here. They liked their experience as student-athletes at BG, regardless of what was going on with the men’s basketball program. That was a good thing to know going forward.”
But the Falcons spent no time on easy street. Henderson said he was anxious to follow Jans’ lead, no matter how arduous the path might be.
“I wanted my last season to be a great season, and I knew that he knew how to win. And once we started working out, I knew we were going to be better, because he expected something pretty close to perfection. The approach was very different than what we were used to. I’ve never been around a guy who teaches the way he teaches.”
Henderson said that as the team enjoyed some success early in the season, it gained some crucial momentum that has carried over into the heart of the conference schedule.
“You could see us improving, and you could feel us improving. He was always trying to get the best out of us. And if you’re not doing what you are supposed to be doing, he let’s you know,” Henderson said. “You knew that if you follow his lead, you have no option but to get better.”
With the Falcons in the midst of the battle for the top spot in the MAC’s East Division, and for the best overall record in league play, and the games coming every few days, Jans finds little time to reflect on just how far this group has come in less than a year under his direction.
“We didn’t set a lot of goals coming in, because there were so many unknowns, but our mantra hasn’t changed. As a staff, we want to work our tails off every day, and give these kids everything we got,” he said. “And I told the team that was what we expected from them, too. Let’s work hard every day in all facets of the program—in the classroom, in the community, recruiting, on the court—everything.”
The Falcons move forward, aware that their success has turned more than a few heads, and insistent on continuing to increase their level of commitment to each other, and to the program, each day.
“When you get into the heart of the basketball season, there’s not much time for looking at the big picture, but I’m cognizant of the fact that we’ve made strides, and we’ve probably won more games than most people anticipated,” Jans said. “But we’ve never put up a number and said that’s’ what we need to reach. All I said was that we want to win championships. I’m not sure when that is going to happen, but I feel like it’s going to happen.”