by Seth Stapleton '00
Alma, Mich. – "People watched. And maybe even if we didn't win, they liked what they saw. And I can say that over the entire time I've been here."
Even when times were tough, Alma College basketball coach Sam Hargraves knew he had something going. His kids played hard and they played unselfishly – and everyone noticed.
Five years ago, the now 39-year-old Hargraves took what would be the first head coaching position of his nomadic career. Following stops as an assistant at Alma College, Hillsdale College, Northwood University, Lawrence University and Dominican University along the way, the former Calvin College standout found himself back at home in the MIAA with the Scots.
"Being an assistant here for two years, I had such a great feel for the place," said Hargraves. "When I was an assistant here, I saw what women's basketball did, what men's soccer had done, what softball had done, what football had done.... I had a great respect for the place, thought it was a good place with good people, and the education forever has sold itself. So it was just a matter of – why couldn't that happen in men's basketball?"
Once arriving at Alma as its head coach in 2011, Hargraves took a certain approach to recruiting players, which differed considerably from the norm. Instead of shying away from the west side of the state, he chose to use the opportunity to get recruits excited about trying to knock off powerhouses Hope and Calvin and sell them on doing something that had never been done at Alma before.
"We immediately embraced the underdog mentality," Hargraves said. "That was going to be my first step, really, to start changing the culture." In a five-year vision Hargraves typed up for his job interview in April of 2011, he spoke of becoming an elite program in the MIAA, making Alma a team the best talent desires to play for and to be a model college basketball program nationally. It took some time, but the 2015-16 season was finally a banner one for the Scots.
The team set a school-record with 24 wins, including winning the program's first-ever Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament title. In addition, Alma qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time in school history, advancing to the Elite 8. Those accomplishments were preceded by a second-place finish in the MIAA regular-season – the best since the 1977-78 campaign – and the program's second-ever 20-win season.
It was definitely a banner year.
While it didn't happen overnight, Hargraves was eventually successful in his pursuit.
What Hargraves has always looked for in a player were just a few things: Can he play no matter what size? Does he play hard? Is he unselfish? "I just put myself in this situation: Is this a guy that I would have liked to play with?" he said.
By the time Hargraves was hired at Alma, recruiting was pretty much over for that year. Essentially, his first recruiting class was the seniors of the 2015-16 season – led by DJ Beckman and Scott Nikodemski. While Beckman was a can't miss product out of high school, Nikodemski was more of a project.
Beckman, a sweet shooting guard from Shelby High School, led his team to the state semifinals his senior year. Hargraves said he always had Beckman on his radar, but thought he was a long shot at best, given the fact that his parents had attended rival Hope College. "We really just talked to him about being the cornerstone of trying to take this thing and have him share in the vision," Hargraves said. "That was kind of the selling point for him. I think it was a really hard decision, but he bought into that and wanted to do it."
The decision paid off for both Beckman and the Scots. He wound up a 1,000 point scorer and a two-time second team all-conference player. "Coach Hargraves somehow convinced me to drive to the middle of nowhere and visit Alma College," Beckman said. "So I did. I really liked the school and its academic accolades, and really liked coach Hargraves' mentality and vision for where the basketball program could be in four years."
The path Nikodemski took was slightly different. Long before the 6-1 point guard would earn MIAA MVP honors and be recognized as a D3Hoops.com First Team All-American, he was a role player on a really good high school team. Nikodemski was not a focal point for a Rockford High School team that finished as the Class A state runner-up in 2012.
Although he started, he was a little used piece in a methodical offense. "He rarely ever shot, but we liked how he handled the ball, passed and defended," Hargraves said. "We thought he could be a good backup at the point guard spot and guard some guys."
Initially, Hargraves had his sights set on Rockford big man Ivy Johnson. Johnson was a talented football player for the Rams and was headed to play for Ferris State University before backing out late because he decided he wanted to play basketball instead.
Hargraves quickly swooped in. After eventually securing a commitment from Johnson, Hargraves tried to sway best friend Nikodemski as well.
"We just kind of said, 'Hey, why don't you bring Nikodemski along with you? We like him too,'" Hargraves said.
The pitch was good enough for Nikodemski. He was not recruited by anyone else and the chance to continue to play with Johnson was too good to pass up. "I knew Alma was a great place for academics, so I knew that I was getting both a good education and the chance to continue to play basketball," Nikodemski said.
The packaged deal of two friends wound up paying more dividends for the program than Hargraves could have imagined. While Johnson became hampered with injuries and would become a student assistant for the team, Nikodemski would go on to become one of the better players in Alma history.
"I have grown a lot as a player over the four years of my career," Nikodemski said. "Coach and I always joke about a picture of me from freshman year and how tiny I was. I put in a lot of hours not only in the gym, but in the weight room. I think that I gave my all preparing for the next season in the off-season. As my confidence grew, so did my game."
After serving as a backup his first two years at Alma, Nikodemski thrived as a starter in his final two. During that time, he became an efficient, unselfish catalyst for an efficient, unselfish team. "It's just an incredible story – just what he became here and how much talent he had," Hargraves said. "You just see how much a kid can blossom going from a senior in high school to a senior in college."
After locking down Beckman and Nikodemski, things began to open up a little more on the west side of the state for Hargraves, in particular, at Rockford and Shelby. One year after landing Johnson and Nikodemski, former high school teammates Rob Holmes and Chase Fairchild made their way to Alma. Fairchild, a lethal three-point shooter, was a starter for the Scots in 2015-16.
While not a starter his first two seasons for the Scots, the younger Beckman was a spark plug off the bench. He super charged the team's offense, averaged double digit scoring and was one of the top sixth men in the country in 2015-16. He will step in for Nikodemski as the team's point guard next season. "In both cases, you get one kid and then that really kind of starts the pipeline," Hargraves said. "I've been through so much with those guys, building this thing." Added Hargraves of his seniors: "I'm so proud of what they were able to do."
With a solid core centered on a collection of talent from just two high schools, the Alma coaching staff was able to mix in a few more key players to round out what would be one of the most talented rosters in the program's history.
For those that weren't around for the climb, the success of the 2015-16 Alma Scots may have seemed painless. But it was far from it. In 2012-13, the Scots went 9-16 overall and 4-10 the MIAA. The next year, it was 7-18 overall and 6-8 in conference play.
"Prior to freshman year, I certainly thought winning the MIAA was a possibility," Beckman said. "But after the first and second years, I had my doubts. It was going to be one of the hardest things I would ever have to do from a mental standpoint, grinding through those dog years of losing a lot. I did not know if we would ever get to where I had initially thought we could get as a team and program."
After an 0-9 start to the 2014-15 season, things weren't looking good for Alma.
The Scots then went 5-5 in their next 10 games heading into a key matchup with Calvin College to begin the second half of the MIAA slate. Alma wound up winning an 87-85 overtime thriller at home. "For me, that was when I thought, this is really big," Hargraves said. "We'd been close a number of times to beating any one of the better teams, but it hadn't really happened yet until that night. That was the start. That was the first boost of giving us some real confidence that we're going to be good."
The win helped spur the Scots to six wins in seven games to conclude the regular season and advanced the program to its first appearance in the MIAA tournament since the league went to its four-team format in 2011-12. They would finish the season 11-15 overall and 9-5 in MIAA play, setting the stage for a historic following year.
Things again started slowly to begin the 2015-16 campaign, with the team going 1-4 to open the season. However, the Scots were playing some of the country's top programs — and were extremely competitive.
The experience began to pay off.
Alma won 15 of its next 16 games. The stretch included a 7-0 run through the first half of the MIAA, highlighted by a win at home over No. 4-ranked Hope. "There is a difference between almost getting it done and actually getting it done," Hargraves said of the turnaround. "Sometimes a play or two that gets made in the important part of the game is the difference."
The team began setting its sights on the regular season conference title. What seemed like a long shot to begin the season was nearing reality. The Scots were 9-0 in the league heading into their second game with Hope – and they lost. Another loss on the road at Albion wound up giving the title to Hope. "When we didn't win it, there's disappointment, but the thing that it did was it put us back to kind of being the underdog again," Hargraves said. "These guys thrive better in that situation."
Added Nikodemski: "I think that gave us the fire that we needed to be prepared for the MIAA tourney. Yes, it was a tough loss, but I think it helped our team get angry and put the anger in our game to not let it happen again."
Alma used the disappointment of missing out on the league title and rolled through the MIAA tournament. With a 62-54 win over Trine University in the finals, the team secured the program's first-ever MIAA tournament championship and advanced to the postseason for the first time ever. While the feat was impressive, the Scots hadn't even played their best basketball of the season. That was yet to come.
"Once we got in, then we just started to play," Hargraves said. "We played loose and free. It was like, we did it. We won the MIAA conference tourney — we're in — now let's just go have some fun with this thing and see what we can do. And we played great."
With the program lacking any experience in the postseason, Hargraves knew much wasn't expected of his team. They were once again in that underdog role and because of that, ready to prove they belonged.
Traveling to John Carroll University in Ohio, Alma faced Denison University in its opener. The Scots won easily, 74-60, setting up a showdown with the hosts. Heading into the contest, No. 5 ranked John Carroll was 10-1 all time in tournament games played in its gym. They advanced with a 99-85 win over Saint Vincent College. In what Hargraves admitted was his favorite game in his time at Alma to date, the Scots led nearly wire to wire in coming away with the win and advancing to the Sweet 16.
"We were just clicking," he said. "We really functioned at a high level and we played with just a carefree attitude that we'd been working five years to get to. And that game was kind of a culmination of it."
With the full support of the community, parents, students and alumni, Alma rolled into Benedictine University in Illinois the following week, for a rematch with No. 7 ranked St. Norbert College. The Scots had defeated St. Norbert 82-65 on its home floor back in late December. Instead of successfully avenging that loss, St. Norbert was handed only its third loss of the season, as the Scots advanced to the Elite 8 with a 70-64 win.
"After the first two and a half years going the way they did with all the losing, it made what we did this year taste all the more sweet," Beckman said. "To do it the way we did — with a true team mentality — made it even better. And to top it off, with all the support we got from students, family and alumni — it truly was unbelievable."
Alma's sensational postseason run would finally come to an end in its next game against No. 2 ranked Benedictine. Benedictine would go on to finish as the nation's runner-up.
"I did not think that we would get to as far as we got as a team," Nikodemski said. "We had a great season and made a run in the tournament. I did think that we would make a run for being one of the top teams in the MIAA, but to make it to the Elite 8 was crazy."
"It wasn't about the numbers or the stats – it was about us doing something special as a team," Hargraves said. While the group was always focused on the team accolades, when you achieve them, individuals get recognized in the process.
Here is a list of the major individual honors earned by the Scots in 2015-16:
• Coach Sam Hargraves — D3Hoops.com Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year.
• Senior guard Scott Nikodemski — MIAA MVP, All-MIAA First Team, D3Hoops.com First Team All-American, NABC Second Team All-American.
• Senior forward DJ Beckman — All-MIAA Second Team.
• Junior forward Trevor Gernaat — All-MIAA Second Team.
Despite the loss of six seniors, including two of the best ever in Nikodemski and Beckman, Alma could still be formidable in the coming years.
With Fairchild, Gernaat and Tyler Edwards providing the senior leadership next season, to go with key juniors Jason Beckman, Doug Bradfield and Kevin Gamble – the Scots will have the talent to play with anyone.
And who knows? Maybe there's another All-American on the roster who just hasn't blossomed yet.
Stapleton is a writer for the Huron Daily Tribune.