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NCAA Tourney is a family affair for Wojciks

DOUG WOJCIK

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has had a special place in Paxson Wojcik’s heart basically since he was old enough to remember.

Wojcik’s affinity for ‘March Madness’ goes deeper than being a basketball fan or filling out a bracket.

It’s literally been a part of Wojcik’s life since the time he was basically old enough to walk.

Wojcik has literally grown up part of the NCAA Tournament. It’s in his blood.

After all, Wojcik is the son of Wheeling Central and Naval Academy graduate Doug Wojcik, who is currently an assistant coach at Michigan State University. Combining his appearances as a player and coach, the elder Wojcik is preparing for his 13th voyage into the tournament when the Spartans take on UCLA in a First Four game Thursday night.

Paxson, however, will be missing his father’s tournament game for the first time. But, his dad definitely forgives him since he’ll be preparing for a tournament game of his own. He’s a sophomore at Missouri Valley Conference champion Loyola of Chicago, which will take on ACC champion Georgia Tech Friday afternoon at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.

“This is really a dream come true,” Paxson said earlier this week. “Growing up, for obvious reasons, March has always been my favorite month of the year. To have watched so many tournaments through my dad’s career, and to come full circle and be part of a team in the tournament is just an incredible feeling.”

Paxson and his Loyola teammates knew for a week prior to the bracket announcement they were in the field because the ‘Arch Madness’ tournament wrapped up much earlier than the power five conferences.

Doug wasn’t able to be in St. Louis when the Ramblers cut down the net, but he was certainly aware of the situation.

“It’s really worked out well for Paxson,” Doug said of his decision to attend Loyola after playing his prep ball at La Lumiere in Indiana. “He’s always gone to all of the tournaments. I remember when he was 1 year old and I was at North Carolina and he was with us. Then, he got to experience it all the way to the Final Four when I was at Michigan State the first time.”

As soon as the celebration calmed down a bit inside the Loyola locker room, Paxson called his father.

“The first thing my dad told was how proud he was of me,” Paxson recalled. “I am sure he knew how I felt having been a part of so many championship teams, but it was really a cool moment to hear him tell me how proud he was of me.”

While Paxson knew he was going to be part of the dance, his dad wasn’t as sure of his March plans. The Spartans, who were bounced early in the Big Ten Tournament, spent most of February on the bubble and it was late-season wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois which proved to be highly beneficial in their chase of a bid.

Loyola, which is the eighth seed in the Midwest Region, arrived in Indianapolis Sunday and watched the selection show from a room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though he was just waiting for a matchup and seed for his team and felt good about the Spartans’ odds of making the field, he was still a bit nervous until he saw both names pop up on the bracket.

“Even though you know you’re in, there are still some nerves watching the show,” Paxson said. “I was confident that Michigan State was going to be in, especially with how they’ve played the last month, but you never know what the committee is going to do until you see (the announcement).”

Having been down this road plenty of times, Doug wasn’t as nervous as maybe Paxson was, but the normal sense of anxiousness might have been there.

“We were probably on the outside looking in about two-and-a-half weeks ago,” Doug said. “Still, being in the ‘First Four’ was a little bit of a surprise to us. We’re thankful the Big Ten got nine teams in, but nine teams deserve to be in. This is a tournament for the national championship and the best teams that can compete deserve to be in.”

With the brackets set, the Wojciks began preparation late Monday for the tournament. Though in town on Sunday, every team must quarantine for 24 hours upon its arrival to Indianapolis. Ironically, Loyola and Michigan State are in the same downtown hotel. However, Doug and Paxson haven’t been able to see each other because of tight protocols.

“We’ve been here (for more than) a week because of the Big Ten Tournament,” Doug said. “We were allowed out of our rooms for that. Coach (Tom) Izzo and I would go for like two-hour walks, but we’re not allowed out of our room unless it’s for practice or a meeting.”

The protocols have made this NCAA Tournament nothing like either Wojcik has come to know.

“It’s definitely bizarre,” Paxson said. “You see other teams like when you’re going to practice and the meeting rooms, which are in hotel ball rooms, but no one on other teams is allowed to have any contact with each other. But, this is a business trip first and foremost. We’re able to really get locked in.”

TOURNEY NOTES

• AS COVID continues to rear its ugly head across all of sports, both Doug and Paxson had the virus. Doug had his bout in January. Paxson was sidelined in early November.

• PAXSON WOJCIK and the Loyola team received some good news Tuesday when they found out that 101-year old Sister Jean would be able to make the trip to Indianapolis and attend the Rambers’ game. It’s the first game she’s attended all season.

“Sister Jean is the best. An absolute rock star,” Paxson said. “She’s not only an icon in Chicago, but across all of college basketball. She’s Facetimed or called us before every game this season to continue her tradition.”

• WHEN THE Spartans line up against UCLA tonight, they’ll have to contend with Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell. Campbell was Paxson’s roommate for a year La Lumiere. And both played in multiple Cancer Research Classics in Wheeling.

• NOT ONLY did Paxson win a championship ring at Loyola, he was also awarded the Missouri Valley Conference’s Elite 17 for men’s basketball. It’s an award that goes to the student-athlete with the highest grade point average competing in the league championship game or event. Paxson is a finance major.

“Paxson is in a great place,” his dad said. “He’s got good teammates, they’ve won a lot of games and to win that Elite 17 Award was great. That just added to the whole thing (at the conference tournament).”

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