On Saturday, January 14, Spring Arbor University Athletics welcomed back its 1996-97 men’s basketball team — on the 20th anniversary of its historic season that culminated with an appearance in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament.
Spring Arbor enjoyed a record-setting season that year under head coach Doug Noll. The Cougars were co-regular season Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) champions and posted a 29-7 record – the most wins in a single season in program history. The team, which started the campaign unranked in the national poll, closed the season at No. 4 in the Top 25, which was its highest ranking up until that point.
One of the team’s biggest strengths was its leadership from the upperclassmen, including juniors Jason Elder and Jeremy Patterson, and senior Jason Corstange. Elder, a two-time NAIA All-American First Team selection – the only First Team honoree in program history – is one of the top scorers to ever wear a Cougar uniform. He currently ranks third on the program’s all-time scoring list with 2,206 career points. Patterson is not only a member of the team’s 1,000 Point Club, amassing nearly 1,500 career points, but also one of the program’s best rebounders, ranking ninth all-time with 851 boards. Corstange enjoyed a career-year as a senior, earning Honorable Mention All-American honors and dishing out 282 assists – a mark that still stands as the single-season record.
Following the outstanding regular season, Spring Arbor qualified for the NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship for the first time in program history. Despite it being its first appearance, the team wasted little time making a splash on the national stage. The Cougars knocked off St. Thomas (Fla.) 71-70 in the first round, and then got one of the top single-game scoring performances in tournament history from Elder – dropping 38 points – to help bring down No. 11 ranked Lewis & Clark (Ore.) 82-79. The magical season would come to a close in the quarterfinals, however, as the team fell to the eventual national champion, Bethel College (Ind.), 94-83.
Part of the reunion event was the recognition of the team at halftime of the men’s basketball game. The Cougars played host to Crossroads League rival Grace College. The Spring Arbor University Men’s Basketball Team rallied late to force overtime, then beat Grace College 93-86
For more photos of the 1996-97 team, take a look at this slideshow.