Fresh off of their home court victory against IWU in the Crossroads League Championship game, the men’s Pilots are heading to the NAIA national tournament. This collegiate level tournament, consisting of 32 teams, is in a win-or-go-home format and will prove to be the Pilots biggest and final test of what has proved to be a season for Bethel lore.
The Pilots enter tournament play, ranked number three in the national rankings with an overall record of 29-4 and 16-2 in conference play. Consistently one of the most elite conferences in the nation, the Crossroads League has never really shown its teams an easy schedule. Four teams from the Crossroads League will be represented in this year’s national tournament (Bethel College, Indiana Wesleyan University, University of Saint Francis and Taylor University).
The Pilots earned a No. 1 seed birth, alongside Indiana Wesleyan University, Union College and Cornerstone University. Bethel will take on No. 8 seed, Calumet College of St. Joseph Crimson Wave in their first-round matchup. The game will take place on Thurs. Mar. 9 at 8:30 P.M. EST.
To be eligible for the national tournament, a team must (a) win its conference tournament, (b) win its regular-season championship, (c) finish as a runner-up in the conference tournament, or (d) host the national tournament (College of the Ozarks). This season the Pilots became eligible for the national tournament through winning both the regular-season championship and the conference tournament championship.
As crazy as it may seem, the success building up to this point for the Pilots has been no tall tale. Sure, it may seem like a story built for a movie, but I assure you, this is non-fiction.
Legendary Bethel College head coach, Mike Lightfoot announced his retirement in the early months of this season, but that hasn’t stopped the Pilots’ success. Lightfoot has seen many teams grind out decisive, yet hard-fought, victories en-route to the 792 career victories he has totaled over his 30-year coaching career. However, this team has overcome numerous rounds of adversity despite the tremendous season they’ve put together.
Seniors Clay Yeo, Caleb Oetjen and Ryan Wassink have each gone down with an injury at some point during this season. They’ve suffered close, one-point losses to Viterbo University and Southeastern University as well as an overtime loss at Taylor University.
Despite these unfortunate rounds of disappointment, the Pilots have also found tremendous success from numerous individuals. Players like Nick Kindig and Jordyn
Coon have provided key, senior leadership through their new roles within the Pilots’ starting core.
This team also boasts both the 2017 Crossroads League player of the year and the conference’s coach of the year in Caleb Oetjen and Mike Lightfoot, respectively.
The Pilots will look to lay it all out on the line, yet again, as they look to send their seniors and Coach Lightfoot out on a positive note. Many teams see even a tournament appearance as a major milestone. For some teams winning a game is as good as a championship banner. For the Pilots, it seems like the stars have aligned and the timing is just right for them to be able to achieve something special. Only time will tell.
During this season, the Pilots had a winning streak that lasted 15 games, which is beyond impressive, especially given the competition that they continuously face. However, what they look to do now may be their most impressive feat yet. Five victories in a row is all that stands between this Pilots team and achieving one of the most impressive sign-offs for Coach Lightfoot and this seemingly fictitious storybook season.