BOURBONNAIS — To say this winter has been one for the record books at Olivet Nazarene University might be too on-the-button of an assessment.
Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have each experienced record-breaking seasons of some form, particularly on the women’s side.
Senior forward Jess Learned became the school’s all-time leading scorer, and junior point guard Kayla Ross became the all-time assist leader, with both of those milestones coming in the last regular season game of the year, an 86-51 victory at Trinity International University on Feb. 16.
Those records are something neither student-athlete thought was attainable when first stepping on campus as freshmen, but Learned said she had some help in the family to realize her record was something that could happen halfway through her collegiate career.
“Coming into ONU, I didn’t imagine it would be a part of my journey,” Learned said. “Maybe the end of my sophomore year, or during my junior year; my little brother loves stats and told me I was on track to do this thing.”
Ross said she has been doing her job as the Tigers’ floor general, and it’s shown, as her 6.1 assists are second in the nation, and the Tigers lead the country in scoring this season at 95.6 points per game.
“I knew my role was to assist my teammates and push the ball up the court,” Ross said. “I love doing it — I want to get them open looks, so I do the best I can.”
Learned, who leads the Tigers in scoring at 17.3 points per game, said she owes credit to Ross for making her job as the primary scorer easier.
“She’s a great competitor, a great floor general,” Learned said. “She can score herself and take it coast to coast, but she’ll hit her guards; she’ll hit her posts.
“She got the all-time assist record as a junior for a reason — her basketball IQ is unlike anyone I’ve seen or played with.”
Head coach Lauren Glenn has seen plenty of magic during her seven seasons at the helm, posting a 159-70 record.
After an 8-8 start to this season with a youthful roster that features nine freshmen, Glenn said it was the leadership from upperclassmen such as Learned and Ross that helped the Tigers finish the season with a 13-3 record that culminated in a Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament title.
“We started the year like anything you start: its new; there’s a lot of struggles, and you’re learning things are great in some moments, hard in other,” Glenn said. “They were positive, struck through the tough moments and had a desire to keep growing and getting better.
“It’s been a blast to see their work, perseverance and dedication to each other, especially through that tournament run.”
While Glenn said their 79-76 win at 17th-ranked Cardinal Stitch University on Feb. 25 was possibly her favorite game of the season, it was a game Jan. 23 against Calumet-St. Joseph that served as the Tigers’ coming-out party.
Not only did the Tigers set a school record for points in a game in their 157-58 victory that night, but they set an NAIA record for 3-pointers made in a game with 36.
“It was just 3-pointer after 3-pointer after 3-pointer,” Ross said. “At halftime, we had an idea that we were shooting awesome, and once the game ended and we heard we broke the record, it was awesome.”
The Tigers take on Northwestern College in the first round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament at 3:30 p.m. today at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
“Northwestern is a great program — every team here is, or they wouldn’t be here,” Glenn said. “The beauty is that it’s one game [at a time] — you prepare the best you can and get out there and play.”
Tigers men shine in grief-riddled season
Learned and Ross haven’t been the only Tiger hoopers to make history. Men’s junior forward Nic Reed became the school’s single-season scoring leader in points in a season in the Tigers’ 93-84 win against Trinity International University on Feb. 16.
Similar to Learned and Ross, Reed didn’t expect to break any records when he began his college career.
“I never want to sell myself short, but I didn’t really know what to expect with playing times and contributing right away,” Reed said. “Coach [Ralph] Hodge did a great job of getting me in shape and ready to go. ... He brought out the best in me and got me to where I needed to be.”
Unfortunately, Hodge wasn’t able to see Reed make school history. After suffering health issues for a few months, the long-time Tiger player and coach passed away Nov. 29, about a month into what would have been his 40th season as head coach.
After Hodge’s passing, the Tigers played two days later and defeated Trinity Christian College. The team spent the next two days at Hodge’s wake and funeral before heading to the University of Indianapolis, an NCAA Division II team ranked 25th in the nation, the next day and pulling the upset with a 95-81 win.
Nick Burkey, who spent a decade as an assistant under Hodge, served as interim head coach this season. He said while the program got through their grief as a team, it was Reid who led that rally.
“For us to respond the way we did in the face of loss, just sticking together, [Reed] was a leader through all of that,” Hodge said. “He knew coach as well as anybody, so it was a pleasure to see him mature through that as a person as much as a player.”
And in Birkey’s interim year, the Tigers have thrived. They are ranked 15th in the nation and won the CCAC regular season. That success was enough reason for Birkey to be named the conference’s Coach of the Year.
“I’m very proud of what he’s been able to do — the guys came together and played for each other,” Reed said of his coach. “He was put in a very tough spot, and I’m very impressed with what he’s been able to do, still using Hodge’s principles and offense but putting his spin on it, and it’s really been great.”
And Reed joined Birkey in receiving the highest conference honors, as the New Albany, Ind., native was unanimously voted Player of the Year.
“The biggest thing that separates him from others is how he endures the game, doesn’t seem to get tired and plays so hard,” Birkey said. “He averaged 37 minutes a game — not that many guys at any level play that many.
“And he takes a beating — the double teams, the target on his back, and he continues to do it.”
With that regular season conference title, the 15th-ranked Tigers solidified their spot in the men’s version of the national tournament. They are in action at 9 p.m. tonight, taking on 19th-ranked Briar Cliff University at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“We’re treating it one day at a time, one possession at a time, one practice at a time,” Birkey said. “Just one everything at a time.”