For just about every student at Vanguard University, faith is important. But as the NAIA Division I champion Lions men's basketball team showed this season, perhaps no belief is more powerful than faith in one another.
The Lions' players, coaches and support staff returned to Orange County Wednesday night, then took a bus to the Costa Mesa campus, where more than 100 students and supporters welcomed them home with applause, a human tunnel escort into the tiny gym and enough hugs and handshakes to energize even the most weary member of the championship program.
It was an unlikely run through the 32-team tournament in Kansas City, Mo., where the Lions had won only once before in two previous trips (a second-round exit in 1990 and a first-round knockout in 2006). But Coach Rhett Soliday's No. 6-seeded squad, which captured the program's third Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season title and its first GSAC Tournament crown, won five games in seven days to emerge with the ultimate prize.
A shock, perhaps, to anyone but those on the roster.
"We had summer workouts during open gym and we all could see this was a hell of a team," senior reserve Tino Zaragoza said. "And not just a [GSAC contender], but a team that could go all the way. We had a summer retreat and championship is all we talked about. We had that championship mentality ever since the beginning of the season."
NAIA Tournament MVP Preston Wynne, a senior guard who was also GSAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, said the turning point came after a 3-4 record in February that followed a 20-2 start.
"It was almost more of an action than a belief," said Wynne, who scored 42 points in the semifinal win and averaged 26.6 per game during the tournament. "After that rough stretch, it was like 'Enough of this!' We came out in practice and we almost killed each other. We were battling like it was preseason and we didn't know each other. After that, we never lost a game. We just came out and pretty much demolished everybody."
Junior guard Chris Gorman, who had 18 points in the title game and earned second-team All-American recognition, said the team arrived in Kansas City with quiet confidence.
"Everyone [of the players] thought we could do it," Gorman said. "We had the team that was capable of doing it. It was just a matter of whether we were going to show up or not."
Junior forward Keith Mason, who averaged nearly a double-double during the tournament, including 23 points and 13 rebounds in the opening win over Life University of Georgia and a 10-point, 13-rebound contribution in the final, a 70-65 verdict over No. 8-seeded Emmanuel of Georgia, said he could see how the doubters might have been justified.
"Honestly, we were just trying to take it one game at a time," Mason said. "Everyone just thought we were the underdog and everyone overlooked us. We got that first game under our belt and we kind of just kept rolling. In the locker room after every game, we all were like 'What's next, what's next, what's next?' We made it to the championship game and we left it all out there."
Vanguard Athletic Director Bob Wilson, a former Vanguard men's basketball head coach, said the non-players in the VU contingent in Kansas City were more cautiously optimistic.
"I think our team felt like it had a chance to get by a round or two, and then I think they were just super focused," Wilson said. "It was almost funny that even after the [final victory], they didn't start celebrating for a while. It was like 'Wow, we've done it.'"
But Wynne said the players' reserved demeanor was orchestrated.
"I told everybody not to celebrate," Wynne, the team's understated, though unquestioned leader, said. "I wanted to show everybody that we knew we were supposed to be there. I didn't want our guys to act like we shocked the world. There was no shock. I told everyone to be on an even keel after every game."
The emotions, however came through.
"It feels amazing. It feels surreal," Wynne said in The Pit on Wednesday.
For Zaragoza, the banner season was a storybook ending to a tumultuous career.
"I kind of got emotional after the game," said the 27-year-old Zaragoza, who quit playing for five years due to injuries after starring at Northwood High in Irvine. "I've had five knee surgeries. I didn't know where I'd be four years ago. I thought I was done playing and my knees were hurting. But then I got the itch to play and Coach Soliday gave me a chance to walk on and I'll always be grateful. I just wanted to be part of a team and I ended as a champion.
"When it was over, I thanked God for everything he has put me through and blessed me with. I started tearing up and my whole basketball life flashed before my eyes; from when I was a little kid, to high school, till now, and ending like this. It has been a long journey, but there is no better way to go out than as a champion."
And while the championship will forever carve their place in history, members of this team were bonded as brothers well before even stepping on the plane to Kansas City.
When asked about his favorite moment of the trip, Mason did not single out anything on the court.
"Just getting time to spend time with my teammates was the best thing," Mason said. "Just being with my teammates for 10 days and loving on them."
Added Wynne, "These guys are just wonderful. It's almost saddening for me because it's over now. I wish I could just keep going. I was looking forward to the next game, even after the championship."
Gorman and Mason singled out the seniors: Wynne, Zaragoza, Swing Chuang, Noel Larkins and Kirk Sheplay.
"It's going to be tough saying goodbye to those guys," Gorman said. "I love all of them. They are all warriors, the toughest men I've ever had the pleasure to call teammates. All these guys are my brothers and I'm happy to go to war with them."
Said Mason, "I'm going to miss [the seniors]. We are brothers for a lifetime."
Wilson said Soliday acknowledged the seniors during the team's regular postgame ritual, asking everyone to deliver praise to others.
"The expression and emotion in the locker room was awesome," Wilson said. "Rhett singled out the five seniors and something about each one. It was not only emotional for the seniors to hear, but it was hard for Rhett to just get through it."
•Wilson said the victory was vindication for hiring Soliday, a former UCI Irvine assistant who played and was an assistant coach at Concordia.
Three of the four finalists for the job were in Kansas City," Wilson said. "One was a member of the tournament committee, one was an assistant coach at another school, and Rhett [named GSAC and national Coach of the Year in his fourth season at the helm]. After all the interviews, we felt Rhett fit everything we were looking for, but we still wanted to find out if he could coach. So, Nolan [Steputis, an associate athletic director] and I took him to lunch at [a Mexican fast-food restaurant]. We played good cop, bad cop and we really grilled him for four hours, and we decided he was the guy.
"So, when it was time to go to lunch on Tuesday [before the evening title game], I went to the same [chain restaurant]. If it was a good enough place to hire Rhett, I thought it might bring us luck [in the final]."