CANYON, Texas – Five men took different paths to the same destination – the NCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament, with the Fort Lewis College name on the front of their jerseys.
When the Skyhawks open the tournament in the South Central Region at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Canyon, Texas, there’s little doubt head coach Bob Pietrack will lean on his five seniors to get the job done in the team’s third trip to the NCAA tournament in his three years as head coach.
“It has taken everyone to get where we’re at, and we’re going to rely heavily on our five seniors, who have a lot of experience in this,” Pietrack said. “They’ve been here before, they know how hard the games are going to be and they know you have to play your best basketball to win down the stretch.”
The senior class is led by captain Rasmus Bach, a fifth-year Skyhawk from Austin, Texas. Bach was never recruited by teams in the Lone Star and Heartland conferences, the two conferences represented in the South Central Region along with FLC’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
“I was overlooked my whole career in high school,” Bach said. “It’s nothing I’m not used to.”
Overlooked no more is Bach, who with 98 wins has more victories than any other player to wear an FLC jersey. The All-RMAC First Team selection is the only one of the five seniors to spend his entire career with FLC. He was a key sophomore during the team’s 2016 regular-season and RMAC tournament championships, gave everything he had when the team fell short to Colorado School of Mines for the RMAC championships in 2017, and led this year’s team in scoring with 15.1 points per game en route to the regular-season title. He’s also only 28 points away from DeAndre Lansdowne’s career scoring record of 1,861 points.
“I think I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” Bach said of the scoring record. “It’s definitely on my mind, but once the ball goes up, I’m all in on the game and nothing else. I’d definitely take 12 points and a win Saturday and then have another game to break the record.”
Bach completely transformed his game to gel with this year’s team, which saw a massive facelift after losing players such as Joshua Blaylock and Will Morse from the 2016-17 team. Through the process of gelling new men together, Bach’s assist numbers skyrocketed while he has become a facilitator as much as a natural scorer.
“Obviously, Ras has been here longer than all of us,” said FLC senior center Brandon Wilson. “Through all his accomplishments on the floor, he’s been through it all. Everyone follows him because he’s been there and done it.”
Wilson and guard Daniel Hernandez joined the team as junior college transfers before the 2016-17 season. Wilson joined the Skyhawks from Otero Junior College, while Hernandez came from Cochise College and Midland College.
The 6-foot-9 Wilson, the best defensive center in the RMAC, is originally from Littleton. This year, he has grown stronger each time he has taken the court and has averaged 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and one blocked shot per game. FLC senior guard DJ Miles, a longtime friend of Wilson’s, called him the best defensive center he’s ever played against.
“The last few years, our team has been stacked,” Wilson said. “It feels good to be back in the tournament. Last year, we had unfortunate things happen toward the end with health that set us back from making a run. We don’t have that this year, so we’re ready.”
Hernandez has been a dynamic player for FLC. The 5-foot-8 shooting guard plays bigger than his size and has been known to go up against opposing big men on both ends of the floor. He made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays for a rejection of a 7-footer from Colorado Mesa during his junior season.
The slashing guard is at his best when he attacks the basket, and he has thrived with an average of 12.9 points per game.
“I’ve been doing it ever since I was little,” Hernandez said. “People have always been telling me I was too small. I love going into the trees and banging them up.”
Hernandez, originally from El Paso, Texas, has been the ultimate team player whether he starts or comes off the bench.
“Whatever coaches ask me to do,” he said. “If I’m coming off the bench for defensive purposes or starting, I trust everything coaches throw out there against our opponents. Whatever is best for the team.”
Hernandez will come off the bench Saturday against Texas A&M Commerce, as senior Kane Martinez will start for his defensive prowess. The lefty from Albuquerque’s Eldorado High School has spent three seasons with FLC since he transferred from Nebraska-Kearney.
“My journey started rocky,” Martinez said. “I was at a (junior college), then transferred to a prep school and then was lucky to have the opportunity at Kearney,” he said. “Coach (Pietrack) saved my career the last three years. It’s been nothing but amazing to be here and go to the conference championship three times in a row, three NCAA tournament appearances. It’s been an amazing ride with these guys.”
Martinez has never scored more than seven points in a game for FLC. But nobody would trade his skills when he hits the floor against Texas A&M Commerce. The start will be his 14th of the season after starting only nine games the previous two seasons.
“Kane is a great friend and player,” Bach said. “He’s the guy you need to make the championship run to get a ring and make a tournament. He buys into the role and works hard every day. He’s a vocal leader and encourages everyone out there.”
Miles has spent only one season with FLC. He transferred from Division I University of Northern Colorado, where he averaged double-digit scoring as a junior. The former Otero Junior College star helped FLC win games early in the conference season when the team hadn’t fully gelled together, and he’s been a huge presence for the Skyhawks when his shot falls. He also has averaged more than 12 points per game this season, and many FLC players feel he is poised to get hot in the NCAA tournament and could be the kind of player who earns regional MVP honors.
“The other seniors allowed me to come in, and they really accepted me even though it was just for the year,” said Miles, who is from Lakewood. “It’s been special, something you can’t take for granted. I appreciate all these guys.”
Miles, just like Hernandez and Wilson a year ago, joined the Skyhawks for one reason – he wanted to win championships and compete in the NCAA tournament.
“I knew we had a chance,” Miles said. “Coach (Pietrack) told me on the phone that we had a chance to do something special. I’d be dumb as a competitor and basketball player not to take that opportunity.”
While the five seniors have made memories of a lifetime on the floor, their bond off the court is what brought the team together during the long, grueling RMAC season. Now, their friendship could be the key to the team making a march in the tournament.
“This year has been very different because I felt like in 2016 the team had all kind of come in together from years past,” Bach said. “This year, it’s been figuring out everyone’s style. Every game has been a journey with this team, and that makes it special. There have been peaks and valleys, but the brotherhood we’ve made has been special. As long as we can stay the path as a team, I think we can win this regional tournament.”