WEST LIBERTY - When the Hilltoppers began fall workouts, what they had to replace seemed astonishing.
Actually, it was astonishing. To have four, 1000-point scorers on one basketball team is just completely hard to fathom.
Gone from a team that reeled off 33 consecutive victories before falling to BYU-Hawaii in the NCAA Division II National Semifinals were Barry Shetzer, Corey Pelle, John Wolosinczuk and Jordan Fortney.
WEST LIBERTY’S Alex Falk shoots a jumper during Sunday’s game against West Virginia Wesleyan in the NCAA?Division II?second round at the ASRC. Falk is averaging 17.8 points a game.
So was it the Hilltoppers' players or the system that proved to be the biggest key to their success?
When the team began preparing for the 2011-12 season, head coach Jim Crutchfield wasn't even sure what to expect from his club. There were new faces, seemingly, everywhere he looked.
Heck, even his right-man on the bench, Eric Bovaird, had left for the head coaching position at Chaminade University in Maui.
There was one guy in the gym who had plenty of experience. Junior Alex Falk - the Upper Sandusky, Oh. product - had started all 34 games during the Hilltoppers' magical season.
"I knew it was going to be a different situation," Falk said. "I had looked up to the four seniors during my first two years here."
Since the Hilltoppers were involved in so many blow-outs during the course of last season, the Hilltoppers' bench got plenty of action. Still, though, really only Falk, Tim Hausfeld and Chris Morrow saw significant minutes when the game was still undecided.
And since there's not a senior amongst them - or on the entire team - who would provide the leadership?
Again, it all turned to Falk.
"There's a fine line for me since I'm only a junior," Falk said. "I don't feel like I can be too loud or too vocal and demand too much. I just wanted make sure everyone on the team knew his role and how important everyone was to the success."
That philosophy of success is what's the most impressive about the juggernaut that Crutchfield has built on the hilltop.
Winning basketball games is far more important than individual stats or accolodaes. You see, with the Hilltoppers' system, the shot distribution is spread around, the minutes are spread around and the results are celebrated together.
"My drive and my main goal was to help get this team back to the Elite 8," Falk said. "Everyone's been on board with that same goal since day one."
Now, the Hilltoppers are on the cusp of reaching their second straight Elite 8. A victory against second-seeded Shaw this evening inside the ASRC will send the Hilltoppers to Northern Kentucky University for the national quarterfinals next week.
During the course of the season, the Hilltoppers have won another WVIAC regular season and tournament title, earned the top seed at the Atlantic Regional and, for one week, ascended to the top of the national polls.
Still, for many, it's hard to believe.
Don't count Falk amongst those.
"The way our work ethic was in the fall and through the start of the year, I thought we could be good again," Falk said.
This Hilltoppers' team hasn't had it as easy as last year's club, but the end results have basically been the same. West Liberty enters tonight's game with a 31-2 record.
The Hilltoppers found ways to win on the road during the first semester against Alderson-Broaddus by seven, Fairmont State by six in overtime and by three at Wesleyan.
"It's so tough to win games on the road in this league," Falk said. "I think we developed well as the season has gone along. We've been getting better with each game, which is what you want to do."
While Falk - a first-team all-region and all-conference player would be deemed the unquestioned leader of the Hilltoppers on and off the court, he believes that it's been the team concept that helped the Hilltoppers in those tough games early and has carried through the last two blowouts to begin the NCAA Tournament.
"We all lean on each other and we all pick each other up when things don't go well," Falk said. "That's the makings of a great team. We've just been developing more and more into that sense."
The Hilltoppers dropped a tough overtime game to Findlay (84-80) in November and then didn't suffer a defeat until a week or so before the WVIAC Tournament when they dropped a 109-99 reversal to county-rival Wheeling Jesuit.
"I think that loss to Wheeling Jesuit made us mad," Falk said. "The first thing that pops into my mind when I think about that game is anger, but I definitely think it motivated us a little bit more that we need to work harder to get better."
The Hilltoppers then received a stern challenge from the University of Charleston in the WVIAC title game. Hausfeld hit a dramatic trey at the end of regulation and WLU went on for a 93-90 victory.
"That was crazy," Falk said. "Winning the regular season was great, but it's really, really tough to win that conference tournament ... even once. Every team is out to get you. It's a tough league to win."
Winning the Atlantic Regional is even tougher. The Hilltoppers have already done that once and the team out to get them tonight is Shaw, which destroyed Wheeling Jesuit in the semifinal Sunday night.
Falk and the Hilltoppers realize this and know it'll take another full team effort if they're to advance, but it always does.
And West Liberty has proven time and time again that it's up for those kinds of challenges because they'll just lean on each other.
Staskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org