They Came THIS Close
1995-96 men's basketball team reunites 20 years later
The 1995-96 men's basketball team was one of Whitworth's greatest squads, making it all the way to the NAIA's national championship game before falling just short of the big prize. Here are some 20-years-later thoughts on that team from its coaches and players and from Whitworth's then-athletics director, along with information about what several of the 1995-96 Bucs are doing today.
Head Coach Warren Friedrichs
"In the course of a long coaching career, once in a while – if you're lucky – everything you need to compete at a national level falls into place. The 1995-96 team was like that – an unselfish group of young men with a grasp of what it takes to make a team successful. We had strong inside play with Nate Dunham and Jeff Arkills, excellent perimeter players in Nate Williams, Roman Wickers and Gabe Jones, strong bench play from Sean Weston, John Beckman, Louie Vargas and Jeff Mix, and talented freshmen reserves who made every practice competitive. This team was also strong mentally: They weren't afraid of any team they faced, because each player had great confidence in his own ability and in the ability of his teammates. They knew that they could rise to any occasion."
Associate Head Coach Rodney Wecker ("Weck"): "The 1995-96 team was a relational team whose core was all about the physical, the mental, and the spiritual aspects of basketball. This team created a statement of purpose, "The Redemption Tour," that included their reasons for playing the game, what they hoped to accomplish, and the end result: what sort of people they wanted to become.
"This team showed all of us the right way to play the game of basketball. They cared for one another first, and the success came when the team members saw failure as a normal part of learning and growing. The disappointment of the 1994-95 season created the purpose for the 1995-96 "Redemption Tour.
The best thing about the 1995-96 team was its consistency of excellence on and off the court: That helped create an exciting environment for teaching and learning.
"Having being part of a team that was focused on the process was fun for me, for the rest of the staff, for the players, for the fans, for the media, and for the entire Whitworth community."
Athletics Director Scott McQuilkin, '84
Among my favorite memories as AD was standing outside the Northwest Nazarene gymnasium an hour before tipoff of the national championship game, and watching as, about 200 yards ahead, the first of six charter buses, one behind the other, turned the corner and began to approach the gym. Out of the buses poured 300 excited Whitworth students. We had nearly 1,000 students, parents, faculty, and staff in attendance that night. The setting was electric.
This team was perfectly balanced – talent, toughness, size, poise, and unselfishness. People forget that the roster had five freshmen and sophomores who saw limited playing time but who, two years later, would become all-conference players themselves and would make it to the Elite Eight of the national tournament.
Assistant Coach Jon Adams, '95, vice president for sales and marketing at a global medical staffing company headquartered in Seattle, is also an assistant varsity basketball coach at Ballard High School. "Ballard plays in the Seattle Metro League," he says: "It's one of the toughest high school conferences in the nation." His work with young people is one of the highlights of his life. "Working with high schools and helping them in their progress is one of my most rewarding activities," he says.
Of the 1995-96 team, Adams (who played for Whitworth but was out with back problems that year) remembers "the stories and building lifetime relationships with players" as the highlights of his time with the team. "That team really prepared us for life by instilling in us competitiveness, teamwork, sacrificing for a common goal, dealing with adversity, teaching us how to perform under pressure, and giving each one of us a strong belief in himself," he says of the Pirates' golden year.
Small forward John Beckman, '97, is a vice principal at Rainier High School, in Rainier, Wash., whose Whitworth experience has had a marked impact on his life and work.
"I believe my experience on that team helped me appreciate dealing with the kind of adversity that I see regularly with the students at my school," he says. "Those experiences provided me with some great examples that I can relate to kids regarding the value of hard work and the fact that dedication pays off."
Asked about the highlights of the 1995-96 season, Beckman replies, "The best part of being a member of that team was seeing our total determination come to fruition at the national tournament. As a senior, it was rewarding to see and be a part of that process for four years and to have it culminate in that run."
Aside from the team's success on the court, Beckman remembers the camaraderie among the players: "It was great to be with such a special group of guys who were unselfish and committed to one another. We worked hard and had a lot of fun together."
Post Nate Dunham, '96, who teaches middle school in Anacortes, Wash., sees selflessness as one of the 1995-96 team's hallmarks. "We sacrificed as individuals to make the team better," he says. "We had a lot of guys who could have taken more shots or held the ball more, but I remember how well we moved the ball and how we cared about playing team defense. We just had the right pieces that year. Every guy understood his role and carried it out. I look back and find that the concept of team resonates with me as I get older. Working with others to achieve a common goal is a skill that I apply in my teaching and at home."
Small forward Gabe Jones, '97, now a real-estate developer in Agoura Hills, Calif., says of the 1995-96 team's reunion, "It was so nice being back in the fieldhouse in February and seeing everyone. What a blessing to be part of the Whitworth family!"
"I wasn't recruited by Whitworth basketball," Jones says, "but I went after it and earned a spot on the team. In my sophomore year the team voted me most improved, and it gave me confidence during the offseason to try and earn a starting spot. I did, but I had to continue to work just as hard during my junior season to keep that spot, because great players were always right behind me.
"Starting on such a great team instilled in me a winning attitude," he says, "and it convinced me that I could compete with anyone in the business world. Being able to be around such great teammates and coaches gave me the understanding of how a great team feels, functions, and works together.
"I remember so well our pre-season workouts on the track," he says. "From Day One we had a determination and a mindset to be great, and we worked at being our best. Nate Dunham and John Beckman gave us a vision of what we could achieve, and we all believed from the first day of conditioning to the final game of the year – the game for the national championship.
"Nate Dunham was the greatest: a player who leads by example. He would rarely talk to motivate the group, but day in and day out he set an example through hard work and getting it right. And his consistency paid off during games. The season truly was a team effort, as each day we pushed each other in practice and grew into a group that was unselfish and committed to excellence. Like most great seasons, the 1995-96 journey started before our first practice or game. It began with a hard loss in 1994-95 and with the understanding that, despite our disappointment, we had something to build on.
Shooting guard Louie Vargas, '97, is a youth mentor who coaches basketball teams comprising boys and girls from fourth grade through high school here in Spokane. He says that being a member of the 1995-96 team laid the foundation for his work with local kids. "It helped prepare me for what I'm doing now," Vargas says, "by giving me the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself. It created a winning attitude within me to share with my players and fellow coaches."
Vargas goes on to say that, for him, "the most important thing about that team is the relationships I've made with teammates, coaches, and fans -- relationships that have lasted 'til today." His years as a Pirate will stay with him. "The culture and traditions that I experienced as a Whitworth student-athlete are instilled in my actions today," he says. "I am forever grateful to everyone who made this possible for me."
Guard Roman Wickers, '96, is currently a senior contract specialist in San Diego, Calif., where he acts as a business advisor to the program office within the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, assisting them in planning for and acquiring goods and services needed to accomplish their mission.
Wickers calls the 1995-96 team a great model in which to learn about being "one piece of the puzzle that must fit the other pieces in order to create an environment of success. Working together as a group, with a common goal, you can accomplish things that would be out of reach for an individual."
Wicker's best memories of the 1995-96 team include "the journey (authentic experience), local connections, and the cultural insights. Some life-changing trips are about visiting an iconic place in person; for me, that "place" was the 1995-1996 men's basketball season. It expanded my perspective and prompted me to reevaluate what really matters."
Point guard Nate Williams, '98, who serves as principal at a high school in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, says that "Playing under the leadership of Warren and Weck taught me to be a person of integrity and to value each moment. (I also recall Warren telling me always to buy the worst house in the best neighborhood you can afford, and never to buy a brand-new vehicle.) These words of wisdom have blessed my family and me in multiple ways over the years. I learned during my experiences at Whitworth that you should always work hard, be self-disciplined, and expect God to give you more blessings that you can handle."
Williams has a theory of why his team was so successful. "The 1995-96 team, like most teams, had many different personalities off the court," he says. "But what we had ON the court, what he had that most teams lack, was true chemistry. I look back on that team and I know that every one of us would have sacrificed a good shot for ourselves for a great shot for someone else. All of us would have given up our own potential personal achievement to see the team succeed. Teams across America preach this in every locker room, but to see it and live it is a wonderful gift that few get to experience. We valued each other greatly, and we wanted to achieve our highest potential as a team. This taught me to surround myself with high-quality people who challenge me and who give more than they take. It also taught me to enjoy each day that God gives me."
Williams's fondest Whitworth memories include "practices, games, and the electricity on campus before a big game," he says. "I still remember my parents and my sister flying to the national championship game from Portland. I told them to arrive at least an hour before tipoff to get a seat, because President Robinson had cancelled school, and busloads of Whitworth students, faculty and staff were on their way. My parents did get there on time, but my dad had to watch the game standing on the baseline, and my mother and sister had to watch on a TV in the basement of the gym. Great memories, great coaches, and a great group of guys I will always remember!"