March 12, 2009 in Sports

Cleveland State returns to field after 23 years

Vikings’ lineup includes ex-Medical Lake player
Tom Withers Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Associated Press Cedric Jackson, who played as a high school freshman at Medical Lake, carries the Horizon League tournament trophy.
(Full-size photo)

CLEVELAND – Carrying the glass Horizon Tournament trophy over his head, senior J’Nathan Bullock stepped off the charter bus onto a parking lot at Cleveland State.

His feet barely touched the ground.

As dozens of students, faculty members and fans alternated chants of “All The Way!” with “Final Four!” a beaming Bullock, coach Gary Waters and his team returned from a road trip to Indiana they’ll never forget to begin preparing for another journey – an unexpected one some never thought possible.

After 23 long years, the Vikings are headed back to the NCAA tournament.

“Last night it really didn’t hit me,” said Bullock, the forward who came close to leaving the school. “But today it’s kind of sinking in because I still see the trophies around. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until Selection Sunday and they call out our name. It’s really unbelievable.”

Believe it. Cleveland State (25-10), a program that won just four games five years ago, earned its first NCAA berth since 1986 on Tuesday in Indianapolis with a 57-54 win over No. 16 Butler.

When the final horn sounded, Waters, who in three years has revived a program once in complete disarray, wept with joy.

“Those emotions were for J’Nathan and all the people who were part of all the negative things here,” Waters said.

“They helped me change this program.”

Cleveland State has danced deep into March before. Back in ’86, coach Kevin Mackey’s “Run and Stun” squad shocked Indiana and Saint Joseph’s as a No. 14 seed before losing to David Robinson and Navy 71-70 in the East regional final. The Vikings’ success was fleeting.

Two years after the magical NCAA run, Cleveland State was put on probation for recruiting violations and Mackey resigned in 1990 after he pleaded guilty following an arrest on drug charges. Mike Boyd (six years), Rollie Massimino (seven) and Mike Garland (three) produced just four winning seasons before Waters’ arrival.

Waters, 57, wasn’t sure what he was getting into when he took over the Vikings after five years at Rutgers.

“Nothing was here,” Waters said. “Everyone doubted this place. When I took this job, I had coaches from all around the country calling me and saying, ‘What the heck are you doing, Gary? You’re going to stunt your career.’ Well, the reason why I chose this place is because of the people.”

Cedric Jackson, a transfer from St. John’s who played as a high school freshman at Medical Lake, had 19 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the win over Butler. He had met Waters during a summer camp at Rutgers, where Waters helped the high school sophomore work on his outside shot. Jackson, who earlier this season made a 60-foot, 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Syracuse, said Waters deserves all the credit for the Vikings’ turnaround.

“What Coach Waters did with this team is nothing short of amazing,” Jackson said. “I wish I would have played for him my freshman year. As soon as I left St. John’s, I knew I wanted to play for him. He’s a spiritual guy and I’m a spiritual guy.”

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