Some may say it was an off year for the men’s basketball program, but 22 wins, a conference championship and a trip to the national tournament say otherwise.
It says a lot about a team’s success when a resume like that can be considered less than what the team is used to, but the program that head coach Andy Bronkema has helped build makes Big Rapids a breeding ground for success.
Pre-season projections hinted that this could be a down year for Ferris. However, the Bulldogs silenced critics early on, pulling off two upsets in a pre-season tournament against Drury and Ohio Dominican.
“We had a long pre-season, and then we challenged ourselves at a high major level,” Bronkema said. “We grinded through.”
Since Bronkema took over the program, the Bulldogs have had 20 win seasons in seven out of the last eight years. This season included their fourth GLIAC championship in a row and another NCAA tournament appearance.
Senior Walt Kelser led the Bulldogs heavily through the first half of the season. He had multiple thirty-point games and gave a forty-point performance for the first time in his collegiate career against Drury. Kelser jumped to the top of the GLIAC scorers with just over 20 points a game, but a slump near the end of the season slowed down the senior’s scoring efforts.
The Bulldogs had one of the more impressive benches in the league this year. Sophomore Ben Davidson held his title as the sixth man dear to his heart.
“Coming off the bench is usually viewed as a negative in modern day basketball,” Davidson said. “I tried to view it as a positive and just tried to do whatever I could to help the team reach our goals.”
Davidson gave the Bulldogs a big lift off the bench. Being a threat from the arc opened up the middle of the court for isolation opportunities, which he would take advantage of with effective mid-range jumpers.
A big change from last year was implementing freshman Jimmy Scholler into the point-guard position, which gave Kelser a chance to focus more on scoring. Scholler’s pass first mentality led him to be a league leader in assists, averaging 4.6 over the course of the season.
“We got a nice group of unselfish young men that will play good basketball in front of you,” Bronkema said.
The Bulldog frontcourt had some changes this season as well. Senior center Logan Ryan often traded minutes with redshirt sophomore Vejas Grazulis. Bronkema was comfortable playing either big man, which was especially nice if one player got into foul trouble.
Minnesota-Duluth gave Ferris one of their hardest tests of the year. The top-25 showdown in Wink Arena on Jan. 2 saw 10 players score in double digits and four over 20 points. Ferris ultimatley fell in double OT 109-107.
Just two weeks later, the Bulldogs beatGrand Valley in Allendale. They matched that performance later in the season when the Lakers came to Big Rapids. Ferris won in another nail biter in front of 2,212 fans, one of the biggest crowds in Ferris history.
“The environment just helps us, you see. We pulled out the close one with the crowd,” senior forward Dorian Aluyi said.
At the beginning of the season, the team was blessed with the addition of Lee Higgins, a graduate transfer standout from Concordia-St. Paul University. Despite coming from a program struggling to find their place in the conference, Higgins blended with the team right from the start. Averaging 13.2 points per game in conference play, Lee became a high-value asset that would start each game.
“I will say that it was a journey to remember,” Higgins said. “Knowing how much I have been wanting to achieve something like that and finally getting there and experiencing it was great.”
A conference championship for the team gave Higgins his first taste of success, beating MTU in an incredible overtime comeback. Kelser hit a game-tying three to force overtime and allow Ferris to pull out a 76- 72 win.
The win was number 200 for Bronkema, putting him third in Bulldog history behind coaching legends Jim Wink and Tom Ludwig.
“We have history on our walls here,” Bronkema said. “I remember how I got the job, and we’ve been fighting every day.”
A trip to the National Tournament was in their future, but a loss in the last regular season game to Northern Michigan squandered the hopes of playing host to the regional games. Ferris traveled to Walsh University for the opening round against Findlay.
Findlay topped the Bulldogs early in the season, but Ferris got redemption this time with an 87-81 victory. The win sent them to the second round for another rematch against Hillsdale College. This time, the Bulldogs came up short, losing 90-74 in a poor shooting performance.
“I wouldn’t of changed it for anything,” Kelser said. “That’s not the way we wanted to go out, but I want to go out fighting with these guys.”
With the off-season here, there’s a lot to look forward to for next season. With the senior group of Higgins, Aluyi, Kelser and Ryan leaving the program, it gives a chance for younger players and reserves to fill the gaps.
Freshman guard Ethan Erickson showed promise this season. With strong shooting talent and an ability to create space off the dribble, it’ll be exciting to see what he does with more playing time next season.
Additionally, the freshmen pairing of Mykel Bingham and Reece Hazelton give the Bulldogs some versatility in the frontcourt. Davidson should continue to be a strong player for Ferris, but whether he will move into the starting lineup is still in question.
Bronkema has high hopes for next season, despite the loss to Hillsdale to end the season.
“I believe we can win one again, and hopefully it’s next year,” Bronkema said. “Maybe it’s the year after that, or the year after that. It’s the pursuit of these championships that develops the character we want in the young men.”
The Bulldog frontcourt will also be boosted by the incoming Claerbaut brothers, Nathan and Brandon. The 7’ and 6’5” siblings will offer a new presence on the boards next year. Combined with another year of development for Grazulis, the Bulldog frontcourt looks to be strong.
Ferris gave the fans another exciting season, and although it ended shorter than what the team was anticipating, it gives everybody a reminder not to sleep on Ferris basketball.