By BRIAN LESTER
Charlie Ernst said his University of Findlay men’s basketball team strives to hit the 20-win mark each year.
For the last 13 seasons, the Oilers have accomplished it. The run includes a 36-0 NCAA Division II national championship season five years ago. The Oilers finished 24-6 this year.
“Any coach would take 13 20-win seasons in a row,” Ernst said. “We don’t ever take that for granted. It’s a goal for us every year. It’s a good benchmark because it sets your team up to accomplish its other goals.”
While not every season can be perfect or end with a title, the Oilers’ 20-win season streak is more impressive than meets the eye.
The Oilers are one of only 14 teams in NCAA basketball to have at least 10 straight 20-win seasons and the only D-II team with more than 10. A total of 1,065 teams play college hoops across all three divisions.
Ernst, a former long-time assistant at UF who has been the head coach of the Oilers since 2011, said a lot of the credit goes to former head coach Ron Niekamp, who won more than 500 games in 26 seasons.
“It’s a testament to the program that Ron built,” Ernst said. “This program is admired by a lot of people. We’ve been able to attract good players, players that buy into what we want to do here. The blueprint for success has been in place for a long time.”
The other 13 teams with 10 or more consecutive 20-win seasons use a similar blueprint, including Kansas, which leads the way with 25 consecutive 20-win campaigns.
Duke and Wooster are both at 18 while Syracuse and Gonzaga have each enjoyed 17 straight 20-win seasons.
Florida (16), Memphis (14), Pittsburgh (13), Louisville (12), Worcester Polytechnic Institute (11), Ohio State (10), Winona State (10) and West Liberty (10) round out the list. Memphis, however, had its 2007-08 season vacated by the NCAA.
“We haven’t been a program that has had big peaks and valleys,” Ernst said. “That streak is also a mirror of the consistency we’ve had in the program in terms of our coaching staff and players understanding their roles.”
Ernst said the programs on the list have the same stability and consistency as the Oilers. He said comparisons have been drawn between UF and Wooster, a Division III powerhouse.
“A lot of people will jokingly say Wooster and Findlay do things about the same way,” Ernst said. “We both keep putting out winning teams in front of big crowds. They are tough to beat at home just like us.”
Tough is an understatement. The Oilers went 15-1 at Croy Gymnasium this past season and are 168-5 at home over the last 10 years. Wooster was 16-2 at home.
Only one team on the list lost more than three home games this past season. That was Pittsburgh, which went 13-5.
The 14 teams have also found plenty of success on the road. The Oilers were 9-4 away from home, and all but two teams (Kansas and Duke) had winning road records.
Finding road wins isn’t easy in college basketball, especially for high-profile teams.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a gym and seen flyers hanging up and the fans packed into the gym for the game,” Ernst said. “On the flip side, it’s exciting. We love the challenge, and our players understand the importance of stepping up in big road games. Those are the games that have a big bearing on how successful your season is.”
Without road wins, a 20-win campaign is impossible to achieve, especially for a Division II team that is limited to 26 games in the regular season.
“There isn’t a lot of room for error,” Ernst said. “When you can win 20 games in a season, you know you’ve had a decent amount of success on the road.”
The Oilers’ streak can also be attributed to having players who sacrifice their own success for the good of the team.
“It’s not just about finding talented players,” Ernst said. “It’s about finding talented players that understand winning and success is about more than one person. We’ve come across players that we’ve liked but they were more focused on individual success. The most important thing is how the team does. We find guys who embrace that.”
But maintaining a run of 20-win seasons goes beyond stability, consistency and good players. It also has a lot to do with minimizing practice times early in the season.
“You can’t minimize practice time in mid-January and think you are going to save your team,” Ernst said. “The damage is done. Fatigue has set in.”
For some teams, the fatigue is overwhelming.
“There are a lot of players and coaches that can’t hardly wait for the season to end, even if they have had a good year,” Ernst said. “Practice is boring. They are tired of this and tired of that. They don’t have that edge. But Ron started it a long time ago where we limit how long we practice. Our guys stay fresher, physically and mentally, and I think that pays off in February when there is still a lot to play for.”
Senior forward Jake Heagen said the way the Oilers handle early-season practices has been vital to their success year in and year out.
“I think having fresher legs in February is one of the biggest reasons why we’ve enjoyed continued success,” Heagen said. “Coach Ernst does a great job of not over-working us in the preseason and early in the season. Our season is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I have always felt fresh toward the end of the season, and it’s a huge mental advantage for us.”
The Oilers have won the last three GLIAC tournament championships and Heagen said there isn’t any reason why they can’t be in a position for a 14th consecutive 20-win season and contend for another conference title.
“We set our goals at the beginning of the year, and we are constantly reminded of those goals,” Heagen said. “We want to play in big games in February and March, and we work extremely hard to make that happen.”
Ernst considers himself blessed to be the head coach of one of basketball’s most successful programs. And while sustaining the level of success the Oilers have enjoyed isn’t easy, Ernst plans to do all he can to make sure it continues.
“I’ve had a job in a program that has been successful for a long time,” Ernst said. “If you win 20 games in college basketball, I don’t care where you are, it’s a heck of a year. We have a viable program and I want to continue to build it.”
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