Bethel honored the seniors on this year’s men’s basketball team before the game against Marian on Feb. 14. It’s a tradition at every final home regular season game, but this year felt a little different because this group of seniors has had such an impact. Other groups have had impacts on the program as well, but this group has been remarkable.
With the win against their Crossroads league rival, Indiana Wesleyan University, on Jan. 28, the Bethel College Pilot seniors were able to achieve an incredible career statistic, their 100th career win as Pilots. The Pilots will graduate five seniors this year including four guards (Clay Yeo, Caleb Oetjen, Jordyn Coon and Nick Kindig) as well as one forward, Ryan Wassink.
This class comes with a variety of storylines. Clay Yeo received a selection into the 2015-2016 First Team All-Crossroads league as a junior, but had to fight through multiple leg injuries and surgeries to even play again as a senior. Though he was initially believed to have played his last collegiate game earlier this season due to injury, he has fought through pain to assist the team as a strong member of the Pilots’ bench.
Jordyn Coon is currently in his fifth season with the Pilots as he had a red-shirt sophomore season. Over his career, Coon has progressed and has now solidified himself a spot in the Pilots’ starting five. He is one of only two players who have started every game thus far in the 2016-2017 season.
The other Pilot to share the lead in starts alongside Coon is senior guard, Nick Kindig. Kindig started his Bethel career on the Pilots’ JV team and has slowly progressed his way to the varsity team’s starting five. When Yeo went down with injuries, Kindig stepped up to the challenge and has shot his way into Bethel lore, shooting 53% from the field, 45.4% from 3-point range and 80.6% from the charity stripe so far this season.
The two remaining seniors, Ryan Wassink and Caleb Oetjen, came in as college roommates in Oakwood-Slater Hall as freshmen and have consistently provided the Pilots with a balanced attack of scoring and defense over the past four seasons. Both were also members of the Pilots’ team that gave head coach, Mike Lightfoot his 700th career win (Jan. 2014). Wassink was able to put into words what that moment was like as a freshman on the team that helped coach win number 700.
“Both Caleb and I were a part of the team when Coach got his 700th win, and we thought to ourselves, ‘why not 800,” said Wassink in reflection. “He’s the one who recruited me to come here and that’s just amazing to see the career he’s had here and the amount of success he’s had.”
They’re more than a few games behind Lightfoot’s 786 wins spanned over a 30-year coaching career, but the seniors have still accomplished their own impressive feat of reaching over 100 wins in their 4-year college experience. Oetjen and Wassink described the feeling of being members of such an impressive senior class.
“[Career win number 100] speaks to more than just me,” said Oetjen. “It speaks to the guys around me, the program that Mike has built and its consistency. This is a really special group of guys, and it really speaks to our depth as a team.”
“Last year, Coach made a comment to Travis [Smith] after one of our games and said, ‘that was your 100th win,’ and I just remember looking at Caleb [Oetjen] and us saying, ‘okay, we want to do that too,’ said Wassink.
Travis Smith, a senior on the 2015-2016 Pilots’ squad was also the first player in years to go to NAIA nationals in Branson all four years. This feat is another potential accolade these Pilots may gain before the end of the year.
“We want to make that happen this year as well,” said Wassink. “It’s a cool milestone to pass 100 wins and eyes on nationals keeps us moving forward.”
Consistency has been obvious for these senior Pilots, but there have also been other factors that have led to their success in the past 4 years.
“The buy-in factor is huge,” said Wassink. “We all have roles [on this team], we all do well within those roles and they all fit together well. Starters to bench, everyone does well, which has allowed us to do well.”
“This year’s team is by far the closest-knit team that I’ve been a part of,” said Oetjen. “Someone is always stepping up and we all have each others’ backs. It’s an asset to us and has allowed us to be successful.”
Both players have had to go through a maturation process in order to reach a level of success in their senior season.
“There’s a big line between selflessness and competitiveness,” said Oetjen. “We all want to play and only five guys play at a time. You can’t get any days back. Competing every second of every day, but being selfless and working with each other have been huge.”
“I just remember going on college visits and always hearing the phrase, ‘Our team is a family’,” said Wassink. “Coming here, I saw that this was the only place where that statement was really true for me, and that’s been one of the biggest things for me.”
Perseverance and persistence have been big for both players, as each has had to fight through adversity throughout this senior season. Overall, one of the biggest obstacles that this team, in particular the seniors, has had to face is injuries.
“I broke my hand early on, when we weren’t facing the best of competition, but it took us a while to adjust to the first injury,” said Oetjen. “A lot of things didn’t really go our way, but we decided early on that we’re going to fight through this adversity and are not going to let anything hold us back.”
As for Wassink, injury has been an unfortunate reoccurrence throughout his career at Bethel. He broke his nose twice during his freshman year and had knee problems throughout his sophomore year, leading to two knee surgeries and the missing of half of his junior season. Now, he has fractured the bone in his hand and is expected to miss four more weeks because of it.
“There really hasn’t been a good stretch where I’ve been fully healthy and 100 percent,” said Wassink. “You just have to deal with what life gives you and get stuff done, while impacting those around you.”
Both of these seniors came in with big goals, but have had to tweak their mindsets over the years in order to reach the goals that they now have as seniors.
“Coming in, I had a goal of scoring 1,000 points,” said Wassink with a smirk. “My mindset was very much about ‘me’ when I first came here, but through injuries and through the years, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how I play individually as much as how we play as a team.”
“I came in with the mindset of ‘I’m going to play’,” said Oetjen in reflection. “You learn to try and make the most of every day, while leaving an impact on and off the court. But, more so, our goal is to win a national championship, especially since this is Mike’s last year.”
Perhaps the ‘senior’ that will be missed the most following the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season will be head coach Mike Lightfoot, who will retire after 30 seasons with the team. The coach has most definitely left a mark on Bethel, even recently having the basketball court named in his honor (the Mike Lightfoot court). Both Wassink and Oetjen believe that the importance of this final season for them is as much about their coach as it is about them.
“When [Lightfoot] told us that he was going to being leaving the program after this year, he also told us that nothing has changed regarding this year,” said Wassink, regarding Lightfoot’s retirement announcement to the players. “In the middle of it you don’t always think about it all, but he really has been such an amazing coach and mentor to me. I can’t thank him enough for everything that he’s done for me.”
“We really want to send him off on a high note,” said Oetjen with determination. “We just want to give him our all, since it’s our last year and Mike’s last year. It would mean a lot to win a championship as Mike comes to finish his last season.”
This team has high goals. Like all other college athletes, they dream of winning a national championship. The Pilots have been to the national tournament the past 4 years, even making it as far as the elite eight since Oetjen and Wassink have been a part of the team. Each year they’ve been successful enough to make it to ‘the big dance,’ but have come up just short of bringing home a national championship victory.
When asked what this team carries that previous teams have not had, both Wassink and Oetjen agreed on the same element of the game: defense.
“We’ve always talked about how [defense] needs to be our identity, but I feel like this is the first year that everybody has bought into it,” said Wassink. “We’ve always been able to put up points, but everyone has made [defense] a priority. The whole team takes pride in low-scoring games.”
“Run, rebound and defend have always been things that Mike has stressed to us,” said Oetjen. “We’ve done the first two pretty well over our first 3 years, and people are going to hit shots when we need them to, but defense wins championships.”
As this season begins to wrap up for the Pilots, the seniors have begun the hard act of reflecting upon the inevitable end of their college careers. Though it may be hard for these five seniors to say goodbye to the sport they love, both Oetjen and Wassink believe that Bethel has provided them with crucial life experiences that neither will ever forget.
“This is the closest-knit team I’ve ever been able to be a part of,” said Oetjen. “There’s something special that we have right now. We love each other. These are [relationships] that will last for years. Those are the things that will last.”
“It’s been a great 4 years,” said Wassink. “Coming to a place like this, where I love the atmosphere, the professors, roommates and everything else, has been absolutely huge for me. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”