It has been a season of unprecedented success for the William Penn men’s basketball program.
That certainly calls for an unprecedented celebration.
For the first time ever, the Statesmen set out the refreshments and fired up the television as the NAIA made the first-ever live announcement of the brackets for the upcoming Division I and II national tournaments Wednesday.
Statesmen head coach John Henry watched with his team, family and friends at the Penn Gymnasium as the Statesmen earned an unprecedented honor. Top-ranked for the first time in school history, 30-1 William Penn earned the number-one seed for the DII NAIA basketball tournament.
“We’ve got all the cheerleaders and a gymnasium full of students waiting to celebrate this when we see our names come up,” Henry said. “It kind of has that NCAA Tournament feel. It’s like ‘Selection Wednesday’ around here.”
The Statesmen open up the national tournament against the 16th-seeded Kansas school McPherson (15-17) next Wednesday afternoon at 1:45 p.m. in Point Lookout, Mo.
Henry will be taking his fourth Statesmen team to a national tournament, having led William Penn to the College of the Ozarks in 2007, 2008 and 2011. It will be the first time, however, that Henry and the Statesmen enter Keeter Gymnasium in March as the team everyone is looking to beat.
“I’d rather be in that position than wondering if we’re in,” Henry said. “We’ve kind of embraced the No. 1 ranking. We thought this could be a reality if we kept winning. Once we got close to it, we wanted it. There aren’t many guys that coach or play this game that get to say they are the number one team.”
Fulfilling the expectations as the top-ranked, top-seeded team in the national tournament would cap what would be the greatest season in William Penn men’s basketball history. The Statesmen already have established a new school record for wins, topping Henry’s 2007-08 squad that won 28 games and made the national tournament.
“It’s actually easier to prepare this time, especially having eight of our nine guys back that went through this experience last year,” Henry said. “As a coaching staff, being there for a fourth time makes it easier to prepare for everything you have to do once you get down there.”
For Henry, this success in his current season is an incredible turnaround for a coach who started out taking over a team that would set a school record for losses.
“Having lost 30 games in a season in my first season and now winning 30 games is so surreal,” Henry said. “It’s been an incredible and remarkable ride.”
Wednesday was a day to reap the rewards of the historically-successful season for the William Penn men. Besides earning the unanimous No. 1 ranking in the final NAIA basketball poll, the Statesmen also picked up several all-Midwest Collegiate Conference honors, including Henry earning his second MCC Coach of the Year honor.
Brandon Beasley was named the conference player of the year, the third Statesmen ever to earn the honor. The senior from Indianapolis has led William Penn to becoming the nation’s top scoring team at 95.6 points per game, with Beasley averaging 18.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 steals a game.
“Brandon I think is the best small-college player in the country,” Henry said. “I think he’s definitely a Division I talent.”
The balance of the Statesmen, however, is evident in the fact that William Penn set another school record with four players earning all-conference selections. Marion senior Keith Steffeck joined Beasley on the 10-player all-MCC first team, while juniors Kevin Fay and Blake Walker also earned honorable mention status.
“One through 12, we’re as good as any team we’ve ever coached,” Henry said. “We were actually bigger in 2008, but these guys work well together and they’ve got a better head coach because I’m five years more experienced.”
This season has been special for Henry, who returned to William Penn after playing for the Statesmen before graduating with a physical education and recreation degree in 1997. After teaching and coaching at North Mahaska, Oskaloosa, Clarinda Academy and Twin Cedars, Henry returned to his alma mater to coach cross country in 2000 before taking over as head men’s basketball coach seven games into the 2001-02 season.
The Newton resident now resides in Albia with his wife Maggie — who also graduated from William Penn — and children Cole and Ellie.
“I’m so proud and so happy not just for this team but for the entire university,” Henry said. “All the players and all the coaches that helped get us to this point, my family and my wife, all get to take part in this accomplishment.”
As the top-ranked and top-seeded team, the hopes are high that William Penn will be the one team left standing by the end of the national tournament. Henry, though, is hoping the Statesmen can accomplish another first for the program by winning their first game at the national tournament.
“I’m not looking to be the Buffalo Bills. I don’t want to go to the tournament four times and never get a win,” Henry said. “You can’t win all the games down there until you win that first one. Once we get into the ‘Sweet 16,’ I think it’ll make things a lot easier.”