by Beth Moller
With a heartbreaking loss in the first round of the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament, the University of Northwestern — St. Paul will bid farewell to their five seniors: Captains Will Gisler, Porter Morrell, and Cody Sprenger, as well as Peter Maring and Aaron Youngberg. During their four years as members of the team, the men’s basketball team achieved great things including four Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Tournament titles, three UMAC regular season titles, and the unforgettable Sweet Sixteen run in 2015. They also experienced an impactful missions trip to Spain last summer. The seniors ended their UMAC career in fine fashion winning a four-overtime game against the St. Scholastica Saints before falling to UW Whitewater in the NCAA DIII tournament.
Head Coach Tim Grosz spoke highly of his senior group. “They are really amazing athletically, academically, and spiritually. They are excellent students and are great representatives. We will miss the seniors on the court and off the court, especially their leadership, but we have a strong program and there are guys who have been waiting their turn that will be back next year,” he explained. “The JV team had their best season ever this year as well.”
The UMAC Championship game that saw four overtimes is arguably the best game in UMAC history and is also the longest Northwestern basketball game ever. Grosz said, “An official came up to me and said it was the best game he’s seen all year. I felt bad for St. Scholastica because their guys really fought but someone had to lose.” The seniors fought hard to secure the victory. In the 60 minutes of game time, Gisler was on the court for 58 minutes, Morrell for 59 minutes, Sprenger for 47 minutes, Maring for 56 minutes, and Youngberg for 57 minutes. “I trusted them to do what was best for the team and take a break if they needed it,” Grosz explained. “They kept playing well.” The seniors accounted for a combined 109 points of the Eagles’ total of 112 points.
The seniors fought through fatigue and remained focused on their game plan as the game continued. Maring said, “The team did a good job of fighting and never losing hope. It would have been easy to get discouraged when St. Scholastica kept hitting big shots, but we just kept playing our basketball.”
“Really nothing changed for us collectively from the end of regulation to the end of the fourth overtime. We just wanted to play our hardest, play for each other, and treat every possession like the game depended on it,” Gisler explained. “Down the stretch the game did depend on each and every possession. As the game got longer and longer, I think we all became more and more confident. It was great that we had a group of veteran leaders in that situation because I don’t think our team got flustered through the ups and downs; I think we remained collected and loose.”
“As the game went on we applied more pressure and took a lot more jump shots, especially in the fourth overtime. We always had energy and remained focused on the task,” Morrell added.
In addition to many big team successes, the seniors also were recognized individually. This year Morrell and Gisler reached the 1,000 point mark with Sprenger close behind finishing his career just shy of the milestone at 905. All five were recognized by the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference at various points in the season as well. During the season, Gisler and Morrell were recognized with “Player of the Week” awards, and they all received recognition at the end of the year. Morrell earned All-Conference First Team recognition and Sprenger and Gisler were named to the All-Conference Second Team. The three of them scored a combined 54 percent of the Eagles’ points this season. In addition, Maring was named to the UMAC All-Defensive team and Youngberg was named Northwestern’s representative on the All-UMAC Sportsmanship team.
Despite their individual success, they are quick to turn the attention back to the team. “To be recognized is reflective of the team,” said Morrell. “Literally all five guys on the court could score, and we play team basketball. It reflects all of us as a team.”
Gisler added, “I’m certainly appreciative to whoever may be granting me that recognition, but ultimately I know every guy on our team is equally deserving of that recognition and even more.”
Starting five seniors
Starting five seniors was a unique situation for the Eagles. Youngberg explained, “Starting all five seniors was a ton of fun this year. We are such a close-knit group of friends, and getting to start out each game together as a group and play big time minutes together just brought us closer. Our chemistry on the court was excellent, especially in the second half of the season, and you could tell that from the balanced attack we brought to every game. Any given night it could be any one of us that was the leading scorer, rebounder, or lock down defender.” All five seniors played at Northwestern since freshman year as well.
“It was really special to start five seniors,” said Sprenger. “We’re all good friends; they are some of my best friends. We see how important it is to work together, and I hope it was something the younger guys can look up to.”
As this chapter of their life has closed, the five seniors look to bright futures. Gisler has one year of school remaining as he works to complete a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota. Morrell and Sprenger finished up their classwork in December, but will graduate in May along with Youngberg and Maring. Morrell plans to seek a career in logistics trucking or athletic administration, Sprenger and Youngberg plan to pursue teaching careers, and Maring will be attending chiropractic school at the Northwestern Health Sciences University starting this September.
Although the on-the-court success is memorable, the seniors all agree that what they will remember most is the time spent with each other and their other teammates. Gisler said, “What I will take away most from this year and these past years playing at UNW is definitely the chances I’ve had to get close with the guys on the team and develop relationships that will extend way beyond the few years of playing basketball here at Northwestern.”
“[A few takeaways are] enjoy what you do, being with the guys, going to practice every day, the successes and adversity,” said Sprenger. “The more I remember to enjoy it, the more I take away from it. Always remember to do your best and God will do the rest. Everyone having the same beliefs and foundation is so crucial and beneficial. Our friendship wouldn’t be as strong without basketball successes and adversity. I can’t say enough good things, and I’m extremely thankful. Hopefully the best is yet to come.”
“The basketball memories that I will remember the most are just hanging out with the guys on the team, especially the other seniors,” Maring explained. “All of the seniors have been really good friends for most of our time here at Northwestern. Some of us didn’t get much varsity time until this year so it was really cool to see how far we have all come.”
Morrell said, “I’ll remember things off the court like road trips, bus rides, and funny little memories. Freshman year the five of us weren’t that close, but this year we’ve especially became close and have tried to hang out together just the five of us more often. All four years the team has been really tight knit.”
“On the day to day level, [my favorite memories] will be the community that we had and spending time with [my] best friends every day,” Youngberg explained. “It was an incredible experience pushing each other to be better each and every day in basketball, in life, in relationships, and whatever else we may have been dealing with. Those are the things I will remember forever.”
As Northwestern athletes seek to “Compete with Purpose,” Youngberg summed up it up well. “There are many things playing basketball at UNW has taught me, and the biggest would be that God can use anything to make His name great and glorious,” he explained. “He uses a game like basketball to bring people to Him that wouldn’t be reached in a different setting. It’s encouraging that He uses things we enjoy to bring His Kingdom to earth, and all we have to do is let His joy and grace shine through us while we play. All we can do is bring what we’ve got and let God do the rest.”