Indiana Wesleyan men's basketball coach Greg Tonagel walked out of his locker room at the Hutzell Athletic Center Saturday and offered a sigh, followed by a glimpse of a smile. His team had just beaten ninth-ranked Saint Francis 81-80 and though he was thrilled internally, he simply didn't have the energy to show much of it.
Across the building, his counterpart, Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross exhibited the same weariness. If you would have placed the two side-by-side, you couldn't have determined which man had won or lost.
Welcome to the Crossroads League.
“It's challenging,” Tonagel said of the conference. “It makes you better. If you've got to play the Saint Francis' then you can't take the week off. Chad is a great coach and they do great things.
“You are constantly preparing and making yourself better. So from that standpoint we get better, but we also beat each other up.”
These two nationally-ranked squads (Saint Francis is ninth and Indiana Wesleyan 11th) went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes in a game that featured 15 lead changes – in the second half.
Great plays were made in metronome-like fashion beginning with the first play of the game when Indiana Wesleyan senior center R.J. Mahurin rolled off a screen, took a pass and slammed home the first couple of his 30 points he would finish with.
Whether it was Mahurin, or Saint Francis center Scott Kohne sinking unorthodox turnaround jumpers (the All-American senior would finish with 21 points), or Wildcat guard Jordan Weidner (21 points) blowing by people in transition topped only by Cougar forward Josh Hogan (20) doing the same, or Saint Francis gunslinger Jordan Hahn (sinking 5 of his 7 3-point shots), the talent display just ticked and tocked back-and-forth all game long.
“It's both stressful and fun,” LaCross said. “I don't want to say that I don't have any fun because I felt like our guys battled and competed for 40 minutes. That's all you can ask.”
This is “all you can ask,” but unfortunately in this conference, that often isn't enough.
The Saint Francis loss created a 3-way tie among nationally-ranked teams (19th-rated Huntington is the third squad along with Indiana Wesleyan and Saint Francis), which could have a fourth team (a Marian win at Goshen will put the Knights in the mix) by Monday night. And it isn't just the top of this league that is pure chaos.
Grace was winless in its first five league games, but has now beaten both Huntington and Saint Francis en route to winning six of its last seven games.
Huntington has beaten Saint Francis, but lost to Marian; Marian has lost to Saint Francis, but beaten Indiana Wesleyan; and the Cougars have barely survived against Goshen and Mount Vernon, two teams have a combined two victories in their first 23 conference games this season.
Picking winners in this conference would drive a gambler to bankruptcy by mid-season. However, the competition does provide its advantages come March.
Saint Francis played for a pair of NAIA Division II national championships (winning in 2010) and finished three games out of first place in the league standings both of those seasons. Last season, Grace lost in its opening game of the Crossroads League Tournament to 7th-seed Marian, yet advanced to the Final Four of the national tournament.
“Other teams may go into the (national tournament) a little more fresh than we are,” Tonagel explained, “but I'd rather be part of a really good league and be challenged every week and playing who we are now.
“I read recently that the Crossroads League has the highest winning percentage (in the national tournament). That says a lot. Not only are we sending a lot of teams, but they are winning.”
And winning is always fun – even if you're too exhausted to show it.