BARBOURVILLE, Ky. --
In the days since the Union College men's basketball team captured the 2011 Appalachian Athletic Conference Tournament, daily affairs for head coach Sean Gillespie
have been a bit hectic.
Between answering e-mails and text messages from friends and family, booking travel arrangements for the team's trip to Branson, Mo. for the NAIA Division II Men's Basketball National Championship Tournament along with keeping up on recruiting, days have been long for the second-year head man of the Bulldogs.
Not to mention, he's also trying to prepare the team for a stern test in round one, a matchup with No. 1 Walsh (Ohio), the 2010 national runner-up, who comes in boasting a 29-1 mark.
Gillespie, however, wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "On Tuesday, everyone was just on cloud nine I couldn't help to chest bump and high fives guys as I saw them. I was bombarded with texts and e-mails all day. I guess you don't truly know how many people follow the program until you accomplish something like this."Throwing the Boulder off his Back
It's not a shock that Gillespie was off thanking the well wishes of the program's supporters when he got back into his office on Tuesday afternoon, as the Bulldogs had accomplished something that hadn't been done since 1968. That was earning a trip to the NAIA National Tournament. The team also won the school's first men's basketball conference tournament championship since the 1971-72 season with their victory over Reinhardt in the finals.
The 42-year NAIA National Tournament drought, however, never barred on Gillespie's mind during the team's run. Part of that stems from the sheer simple significance of the number itself, 42.
"It's one of those things, you talk about the 42 years, but I don't think anyone ever made a significance of it until really I started talking about when I got here two years ago," he said. "It's hard for our guys to put 42 years in perspective. It's hard for me. I'm a walking 42-year old man, so they look at me and say that represents 42 years. So, I don't know how heavy a weight it was on our back, but it was certainty in the back of our minds."
It was so in the back of the minds of the Bulldogs that Gillespie seemed to remind his team on a daily basis of the tournament streak. So much so, he hung a Union basketball jersey, number 42, in the team's locker room all season. The jersey was promptly cut into shreds and burned when the team arrived back in Barbourville after winning the AAC on Monday night.
"It's been a piece of our philosophy this year, that we were going to be the team that makes history," he continued. "That would be the goal. It's nice to get it off our back. I hope it's not another 42 years, I'll be dead and gone for sure. It's just been a huge, huge accomplishment for sure."A Stern Test
When Union finally plays their first game of the national tournament on Wednesday afternoon, they will undoubtedly face their toughest test in recent memory when they take on Walsh, a team who is looking to take home the national title after coming so close a season ago.
"We've got a challenge with Walsh," he said. "They're a strong program that is very solid and big up front. They also have some Division I transfers. However, we're all competitors, so when they ball tips, they just like we are. They put their jerseys on the same way we do and they'll be playing with the same ball we will."
Playing a program as strong as Walsh, however, does have its advantages, according to Gillespie.
"They're really a program that we want to model, national tournament. Well, we're going to be up close to a national-caliber basketball program," he said. "We're going to see what areas we need to get better in and what we need to do to get to that level."Reunited with the Warriors
When Gillespie and his Bulldogs get to the Branson, he will be reacquainted with a program he knows very well in Sterling (Kan.), who also qualified for the national tournament. Gillespie served as an assistant coach in that program for three seasons before coming to Union and attributes the success he has had so far as a head coach to his time there.
"I'll be honest, being an assistant at Sterling and going to the national tournament there (in 2009) planted the seed for what we've done here," he said. "When I took the job here, I was fresh off that national tournament experience, so I started pumping those thoughts into our guys. It's just a great experience. The energy that I gained from that experience I felt I brought here and we started talking about it since day one. I thought working there was a huge stepping stone for me as a coach to be able to get this team to the tournament.
"Secondly, I was able to learn all that goes into taking a team to the national tournament there," he continued. "All the nuts and bolts, between traveling and the way things are run. If I hadn't gone to the national tournament before, I think I'd feel much more apprehensive right now. It was a huge experience; I got to learn a lot."
Gillespie is also encouraged by his reunion with Sterling, as he will see some of the same players he recruited as 17-year old high school seniors lead the program to the national tournament.
"For them to go back and try to make a run, which I think they can do, will be fun," he said. "Most of them are seniors that I recruited, so they're done and moving on, so getting a chance to see them will be pretty cool."A Reward for Hard Work
As the final preparations are being made by Gillespie, his staff and the Union players, the overall goal for the week is to learn, but also compete.
"I want our kids to learn this week what it takes to compete at the national level," Gillespie said. "What it takes to travel and compete at the national level. The energy is going to even higher than what it was in the conference tournament. The level of play will be higher. We're one of 32 teams left playing at our level.
"I want them to catch that bug that they want to come back; they want to be back next year. It's exciting, because our core is going to be solid coming back. This group of guys now knows what it takes, so we're going to build on it."
While they compete, learn and try to pull off a massive upset in their first round game, the Bulldogs will undoubtedly have the chance to kick back and soak in the atmosphere.
"We're going to have a good time," Gillespie said. "It's a reward for their hard work. Our number one thing is to go and enjoy the experience, because no one is guaranteed to ever come back. I may never get a chance to go back. We want them to take it all in and enjoy the moment. But when it time to compete, let's get after it."Memories that will Last Forever
Regardless of what happens this week in Branson, the 2010-11 Union College men's basketball team will go down in the annals of school history for what they accomplished at the end of the season. That accomplishment is something that Gillespie understands fully.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, the coaches coach and the players play," he said. "They either buy into what you're saying to them or they don't. It's the kids that get this accomplished."
"The real joy for us coaches is to see their faces in the pictures of the championship celebration," he continued. "We had some guys that were in tears, we had some guys that couldn't get the smile off their face. That's my motivation, to see kids get rewarded for their hard work.
"At the end of the day, 20 years from now, I don't know where the banner is going be at, the ring will be in a closet somewhere, but it's the memories that can't be taken away from us, that can't get dust on it. And every time you see them at their weddings or at the births of their kids or 10 years from now at a reunion, we can always look back on this.
"It's why I coach, to see kids push through barriers they never thought they could."