The men’s basketball team has not seen success on the court in some time. Over the past six seasons, this one included, they have won just 14 of their last 128 games, good enough for a winning percentage of just under 11 percent, a number that is bolstered significantly by a six-win season last year.
Suffice it to say that fans of the Prairie Fire have been hungry for a title for some time: They have not won a title since 1975, when they split the title with Coe College, and have made just one tournament appearance in the last 10 seasons. For Head Coach Kevin Walden, that sounds more like a challenge than anything else
“We preach the future,” said Walden. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the conference. On this team, you get the opportunity to attend a great academic school while having the opportunity to be a part of something special, a part of something that is continuing to grow.”
If that message sounds akin to a broken record, well, that’s because it sort of is one. Time after time, sport after sport, that is what coaches will say when faced with dismal prospects. Focus not on the present, but on the future. Ask Walden, however, and this was all a part of his plan.
“I knew we were going to take some lumps when I took this job,” said Walden. “But I also knew it was going to be worth it in the end.”
Walden’s journey to coaching at Knox began with his own playing days in Galesburg. A four-year basketball player at Knox, Walden dominated the second half of his career.
During the 2000-2001 season, Walden was a team captain, where he won Most Valuable Player, Most Valuable Senior and the Harley Knosher Award for Best Male Basketball Player. Following a stint as an assistant basketball coach at Knox, Walden was named the men’s basketball coach at Warren Wilson College, a program that had won just eight games and had only seven players over a five-year span.
In his final season with the Owls, he led them to a 16-9 record, the program’s best record in 30 years, and a number nine spot in the DII national polls
Walden estimates the process of turning the Prairie Fire around in a similar manner to Warren Wilson is roughly halfway to completion. At this point, his main focus is on continuing to recruit solid players and to develop players already on the team.
One such example of a player is sophomore Caylab Hererra. Averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, Hererra is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Such a performance from a player who started only four games last season represents precisely the growth necessary for the team to become more competitive.
“The mentality that has been impressed upon us is to never give up and to never settle with what you have,” said Hererra. “[Assistant Coach Dan] Jackson has really taken me under his wing and has pushed us all to improve. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
There are indications that the program is beginning to turn around. Last week’s contest against St. Norbert is one such example. Coming into the contest, the Green Knights had won a whopping 52 consecutive MWC contests and had taken five of the last six MWC Championships.
Even so, and despite trailing by 12 at the half, Knox was able to make it a one-possession game against St. Norbert with just seconds to go. Despite falling 56-53, Walden identified the game as extremely important.
“I’ll take this team any day of the week,” Walden said. “I told the guys [after the game against St. Norbert] that I’m just excited to head to practice on Monday. We lost, but we competed at an incredibly high level. That’s the improvement I want to see.”
For Walden, as well as freshman Braden Adams, a lot of the team’s inconsistency boils down to youth.
“There’s a lack of defined leadership on this team,” Adams said. “A lot of that comes from not having any seniors … Our juniors are growing into that role, but just like a lot of us young guys, they’re still learning how to be there and we’re still learning how to play at a collegiate level. Talent-wise, we are one of the best teams in the conference. We just have to continue to figure out how best to play together.”
Asked what the Prairie Fire need to do to avoid the path so many teams have gone down before, Hererra had a quick answer.
“It’s all mental,” he said. “You just have to be able to block everything out and stay focused on the task at hand … You have to be able to push through the adversity and stay focused, which Coach is teaching us to do.”
Ultimately, Adams put the brunt of the movement forward on the team themselves. Walden, he says, reminds them every day that he would suit up with them if he could, a mindset that has made an impression on the team.
“I love the way he coaches,” said Adams. “He pushes us, but he also puts it all on us. He both pushes and encourages us every day, but in the end he makes sure we know that the success or failure of this team rests on us and how hard we work each day.”
In terms of specifics, Walden and his team know they need to rebound better, turn the ball over less and play the game for the full 40 minutes.
“We need to play and execute at a higher level,” Walden said. “We’ve been more competitive, but our record doesn’t show it… When these young guys really click, we are going to be fun to watch.”