For just about every student at Vanguard University, faith is important. But as the NAIA Division I champion Lions men's basketball team showed this season, perhaps no belief is more powerful than faith in one another.
The Lions' players, coaches and support staff returned to Orange County Wednesday night, then took a bus to the Costa Mesa campus, where more than 100 students and supporters welcomed them home with applause, a human tunnel escort into the tiny gym and enough hugs and handshakes to energize even the most weary member of the championship program.
It was an unlikely run through the 32-team tournament in Kansas City, Mo., where the Lions had won only once before in two previous trips (a second-round exit in 1990 and a first-round knockout in 2006). But Coach Rhett Soliday's No. 6-seeded squad, which captured the program's third Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season title and its first GSAC Tournament crown, won five games in seven days to emerge with the ultimate prize.
A shock, perhaps, to anyone but those on the roster.
"We had summer workouts during open gym and we all could see this was a hell of a team," senior reserve Tino Zaragoza said. "And not just a [GSAC contender], but a team that could go all the way. We had a summer retreat and championship is all we talked about. We had that championship mentality ever since the beginning of the season."
NAIA Tournament MVP Preston Wynne, a senior guard who was also GSAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, said the turning point came after a 3-4 record in February that followed a 20-2 start.
"It was almost more of an action than a belief," said Wynne, who scored 42 points in the semifinal win and averaged 26.6 per game during the tournament. "After that rough stretch, it was like 'Enough of this!' We came out in practice and we almost killed each other. We were battling like it was preseason and we didn't know each other. After that, we never lost a game. We just came out and pretty much demolished everybody."
Junior guard Chris Gorman, who had 18 points in the title game and earned second-team All-American recognition, said the team arrived in Kansas City with quiet confidence.
"Everyone [of the players] thought we could do it," Gorman said. "We had the team that was capable of doing it. It was just a matter of whether we were going to show up or not."
Junior forward Keith Mason, who averaged nearly a double-double during the tournament, including 23 points and 13 rebounds in the opening win over Life University of Georgia and a 10-point, 13-rebound contribution in the final, a 70-65 verdict over No. 8-seeded Emmanuel of Georgia, said he could see how the doubters might have been justified.
"Honestly, we were just trying to take it one game at a time," Mason said. "Everyone just thought we were the underdog and everyone overlooked us. We got that first game under our belt and we kind of just kept rolling. In the locker room after every game, we all were like 'What's next, what's next, what's next?' We made it to the championship game and we left it all out there."
Vanguard Athletic Director Bob Wilson, a former Vanguard men's basketball head coach, said the non-players in the VU contingent in Kansas City were more cautiously optimistic.
"I think our team felt like it had a chance to get by a round or two, and then I think they were just super focused," Wilson said. "It was almost funny that even after the [final victory], they didn't start celebrating for a while. It was like 'Wow, we've done it.'"
But Wynne said the players' reserved demeanor was orchestrated.
"I told everybody not to celebrate," Wynne, the team's understated, though unquestioned leader, said. "I wanted to show everybody that we knew we were supposed to be there. I didn't want our guys to act like we shocked the world. There was no shock. I told everyone to be on an even keel after every game."
The emotions, however came through.
"It feels amazing. It feels surreal," Wynne said in The Pit on Wednesday.
For Zaragoza, the banner season was a storybook ending to a tumultuous career.
"I kind of got emotional after the game," said the 27-year-old Zaragoza, who quit playing for five years due to injuries after starring at Northwood High in Irvine. "I've had five knee surgeries. I didn't know where I'd be four years ago. I thought I was done playing and my knees were hurting. But then I got the itch to play and Coach Soliday gave me a chance to walk on and I'll always be grateful. I just wanted to be part of a team and I ended as a champion.
"When it was over, I thanked God for everything he has put me through and blessed me with. I started tearing up and my whole basketball life flashed before my eyes; from when I was a little kid, to high school, till now, and ending like this. It has been a long journey, but there is no better way to go out than as a champion."