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Local athletes enjoy MSU's Elite 8 experience

Submitted Photo Minnesota State University, Mankato men's basketball team junior Stephen Kirschbaum (left), freshman Travis Meinders (right) and assistant coach Corey Christopher (center) stand on the floor of the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass., ahead of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight basketball tournament in late March.

MANKATO -- When Travis Meinders decided to join the Minnesota State University, Mankato men's basketball team after a storied career at Worthington High School, he knew the Mavericks had the potential to have some great success.

However, he didn't necessarily expect that the team would already have arguably its best season ever during his freshman season.

"It was definitely the best season in MSU basketball history," said assistant coach Corey Christopher, a native of Jackson and former head coach at Windom.

MSU won its regional bracket of the NCAA Division II national tournament to advance to the Elite Eight, advancing all the way to the Final Four before seeing its season end.

"On my visit here I noticed that the last five years in a row they've had 25-win seasons and I saw that they had five seniors coming in, and I was like, 'This is going to be a good class, and we're going to make some noise in the tournament,'" Meinders said.

For Mavericks junior Stephen Kirschbaum -- a native of Sheldon, Iowa -- getting to the Elite Eight this year was a relief after the team failed to do so in his previous seasons.

MSU has won the conference title in five of the past six seasons, but had failed to make much of an impact in the regional tournament during that time.

Last season, the Mavericks hosted the regional tournament but weren't able to make use of having home-court advantage. The team again hosted the tournament this season, and this time it didn't let the opportunity pass by.

"It kind of felt like we were able to get a big monkey off of our back," Kirschbaum said. "This year was the second year in a row that we've hosted (regionals) at home. Last year we weren't able to take care of business, we got bounced in the second round. It was just nice being able to go there and have as much success as we did and show the city of Mankato that we're not just a regular-season team. We can play in the postseason as well."

Although the Mavericks were able to finally able to live up to their potential this year, at the beginning of the season, it didn't necessarily seem that they were destined for success.

It took a while for the team to develop some chemistry, but when it finally did, there was no looking back.

"The beginning of the season was kind of a struggle -- we had some transfers come in that really didn't fit with what we're trying to do as a program, and during the preseason workouts and everything it wasn't really fun," Kirschbaum said. "No one had fun going to practice, and we had a lot of adversity, but after we got things all settled out our team kind of looked toward each other for the solution, and we all kind of bonded to the whole process and everything kind of took off from there."

Despite winning the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with a 19-3 record, MSU didn't get off to a good start to postseason play by losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

However, the disappointing loss didn't keep the team from earning a berth in the regional tournament and taking the No. 1 seed, and with it the right to host the tournament.

The tournament was comprised of two fellow teams from the NSIC (Winona State and the University of Mary) and five teams from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

The Mavericks beat No. 8 Winona State in the first round by a score of 96-81 before earning a narrow 69-65 victory against Metropolitan State College of Denver in the semifinals (including eight points from Kirschbaum), setting up a matchup in the final against Fort Lewis College.

MSU won the contest 81-63 to punch its ticket to the Elite Eight in Springfield, Mass.

"To win the regional tournament was big," Meinders said. "That was a big stepping stone for us, and it was very exciting. Then to go out to Massachusetts and win our first game out there was just terrific and great, because our goal was to make it to the Final Four and not just the Elite Eight."

Playing on the national stage was quite an experience for the Mavericks' players, with the games broadcast across the country on the CBS college network.

"It's quite a big jump," Meinders said. "Just having cameras in our locker room, that was quite different."

The tournament experience included not only playing at the MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield, but also included a banquet on the induction floor at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

"Having that banquet at the basketball hall of fame, that was incredible," Meinders said. "Just to see all the great players that have played the game, to see their faces on the wall, and then just to have the banquet itself on the gym floor in there -- it was incredible."

The whole experience of paying in the tournament hasn't fully sunk in for Kirschbaum even now.

"It was almost surreal," Kirschbaum said. "To this day it hasn't totally set in yet. You get there, and you get to go to the Basketball Hall of Fame and you get to meet all these teams from all over the country. It really never hits you until the ball tips that, 'Hey, we made it to the Elite Eight,' and then later for us, the Final Four. It never really hits you completely how far you've actually gotten."

Kirschbaum played a vital role in MSU's opening victory against Alabama-Huntsville, a 95-91 victory in overtime. Kirschbaum scored a career-high 13 points in the game, including a 3-pointer in overtime that brought the Mavericks to the 92-point mark, completing a 3-for-6 day from behind the arc.

MSU had its chances in its Final Four game against Bellarmine (Ky.), but ended up with an 81-74 loss.

Bellarmine would go on to win the national championship.

Although the players were deflated after the loss, the team had a meeting a week later and realized that there was no shame in what it accomplished this year.

"I think it took us about a week to realize, 'We have no reason to keep our heads down, we had such an amazing, successful year, and we can't let that one loss take away from what we have accomplished,'" Kirschbaum said.

Since returning, Kirschbaum has been hearing about the impact that the team's success made in Mankato.

He heard that bars and restaurants in the city were packed to watch the Mavericks' games when they were in Springfield, and he has received congratulations from complete strangers while out in the town.

However, the most important well-wishers to him were the ones that had been following him from back home.

"It was really cool after getting back from Springfield, or even after when we won the regional championship, all the calls of congratulations, not just from Mankato but even from back home," Kirschbaum said. "I had old coaches and old teachers and stuff either e-mailing me, e-mailing my parents or calling me saying, 'Hey, congrats. We were supporting you down here, we were paying attention.' It's a really good feeling."

Despite losing a talented senior class, the experience of making the Elite Eight will serve to benefit the players returning next season.

"The senior class last year definitely set the bar high for us seniors coming back," Kirschbaum said. "It definitely gives us a goal to strive for. It's nice to know that we still do have a year left, our careers aren't over yet, and we still have time to make a push for a national championship.

"We learned a lot this year through the games we played and the big-time stage we were at, so we're just going to use that coming back next year to keep us rolling and to keep competing for championships."

Although the Mavericks will be returning a relatively low number of players from this year's team with only seven players slated to return, Meinders feels that it shouldn't automatically be assumed that the team will be in rebuilding-mode next year.

"A lot of people are saying it's going to be a rebuilding year for us, but we've got some great recruits coming in, and we have seven guys returning," Meinders said. "I think we'll still be a pretty good team, and we'll surprise a lot of people next year... it's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of good team chemistry for us to get back to where we were, but I believe that we can do it."

Although Meinders didn't play as often as he originally expected with a wealth of upper-classmen on the team, Christopher feels that being involved in such a successful season will benefit Meinders as he takes a bigger role with the team next year.

"It was really a good year, and I think it was a great learning experience for Travis, getting to be a part of the experience and learn from those seniors," Christopher said. "Now that those seniors are gone there's a lot of opportunity for Travis and the other remaining kids to step up and have a chance to earn some minutes and become valuable contributors now."

Meinders is hoping that the experience of his freshman season will serve as a sign of things to come as he continues his career at MSU.

"Winning our conference and our regional championship -- that's a pretty good start for freshman year, I'd say," Meinders said. "For freshman year, it was an incredible experience and I'm glad I got to have it because now it's almost like I'm a veteran if we make it back there, which I hope we do. And I plan on doing it."