The Ohio Christian University men's basketball team certainly didn't appear to be on its way to winning its first national championship after it dropped to 6-7 with a 109-60 loss to the University of Pikeville of Kentucky on Jan. 3.
But the 49-point setback proved to be a wake-up call for the Trailblazers, who won 21 of their next 22 games and captured the National Christian College Athletic Association's Division II national title.
Ohio Christian, which is in Circleville, finished 27-8 overall and 10-0 in the Ohio Collegiate Athletic Conference.
"We had a first-year coach (former Ohio State player Tony Stockman) and a new team and we had just been beaten pretty badly," sophomore guard and Whetstone High School graduate Wesley Russell said when asked about the turning point in the season. "We had to get together and jell as a team. We started running our plays and playing defense."
Russell averaged team highs in points (15.7), assists (3.2) and steals (2.3) and was second on the team in rebounds (6.3) and was named first-team All-America. He is one of four players from central Ohio on Ohio Christian's roster.
The other three area players are sophomore forwards: Pickerington North graduate Evan Mills (8.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists), DeSales graduate Kenny Cooper (3.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists) and Canal Winchester graduate Joe Collier (2.1 points, 2.0 rebounds).
Ohio Christian won its final seven regular-season games and went 5-0 in the postseason, beating Arlington (Texas) Baptist 73-62 in the national championship game March 9 in Springfield, Mo.
"Everyone put their egos aside and no one cared about personal stats anymore," said Mills, who played at Ohio State-Newark last season. "After (the loss to Pikeville) we really came together as a team."
Ohio Christian opened the postseason with a 100-61 win over Boyce College of Louisville, Ky., on Feb. 22 and beat Kentucky Christian 81-65 on Feb. 23 to advance to the three-round, three-day national tournament.
The Trailblazers defeated Manhattan Christian of Kansas 94-75 in a quarterfinal March 7 and Florida Christian 69-64 in a semifinal March 8 to reach the final.
"We were thinking that we had to win (the national title) after last year," Cooper said. "We lost in (a national) semifinal (66-46 to eventual champion Grace Bible College of Grand Rapids, Mich.) and we knew we had to come out playing this year. We had been there before and didn't want to miss out this time."
Russell led the way against Manhattan Christian with a triple-double (16 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists) and recorded a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) against Florida Christian.
"Wesley did it all for us this season," said Stockman, who graduated from Ohio State in 2005 and played professionally in France, Germany, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil before being hired by Ohio Christian last March. "He scored, he rebounded, he led us in assists and steals. He did it all.
"Evan Mills really was a polished scorer for us and Kenny was our sixth man and a defensive stopper and rebounder. (Cooper) really raised our energy when he went on the court."
On March 19, the Trailblazers were honored with a parade through downtown Circleville. The players were surprised by the number of fans who lined the streets even though the temperature hovered in the 30s for much of the day.
"It was pretty exciting to see the people of Circleville support us," Russell said. "And it was great to get to meet the mayor (Don McIlroy) at the end of the parade."
With the season completed, the Trailblazers have turned their focus to preparing to defend their national title.
"Yeah, back to the 6 a.m. practices," Russell said. "During the postseason, we'd come in at 6 a.m., then we would have individual workouts beginning at 9:30 (a.m.). Then we would go to class and study and be back at 10:30 at night for another practice.
"It was long and hard, but it was worth it. I'm ready to get back at it to work for another (title)."