Ryan Mesh is nervous.
He points this out by holding up his hands during an interview. They are shaking visibly, so the 6-foot-10 Newman center tries to make a joke.
“I don’t really like to talk a lot,” Mesh said. “I guess I’m more of a thinker. I like to think…like, a lot. Thinking, yes. Talking, not so much.”
On the brink of the school’s first NCAA Division II Tournament game Saturday night against Midwestern State in Denver, Mesh and his teammates are now part of history. No matter how high the program flies, they will forever be the team that started it all.
And that’s pretty cool.
“We had a couple of pretty heartbreaking losses at the end of the year and after we lost in the (Heartland Conference) tournament, that was kind of the low moment of the season,” Mesh said. “And then we get an NCAA bid and it just erases all of those emotions and you go from feeling so down to now, where we just feel like anything is possible.”
His path leads to Denver.
Midwestern State coach Nelson Haggerty has led a blessed life when it comes to basketball.
As a player at Baylor, he led the nation in assists in his senior season — he averaged 10 per game in 1994-95 — and was a two-time All-Southwest Conference selection.
“Makes it a little easier with the guards,” Haggerty said, laughing. “I may bring that up every now and again when I want them to share the ball more.”
As an assistant coach, he was able to learn under Tim Jankovich at Hutchinson Community College and Gene Iba at Pittsburg State.
As an assistant at Midwestern, he was part of two Elite Eight teams before taking over as coach last season and leading Midwestern to a third straight Elite Eight.
This year, the Mustangs won the Lone Star Conference title and are back in the NCAA Tournament behind 6-foot-7 senior forward Corbin Thomas, a Missouri State transfer who averages 13.9 points and 8.4 rebounds.
As a team, Midwestern is outrebounding opponents 41.6-31.6.
He is more than familiar with Newman — graduate assistant Jon Trilli is the son of Newman athletic director Vic Trilli, one of Midwestern’s most well-known alumni after spending years as an assistant to Tom Penders at Texas and as coach at North Texas.
“We see that Newman has beat good teams, we see that they started the season off red-hot,” Haggerty said. “We’ve kept up with them all year, they’re no strangers to us.”
His path leads to Denver.
Mark Potter has been Newman’s basketball coach since the school brought the program back in 1998 at the NAIA level. With a ragtag group of transfers and local players to start with, he built something out of nothing, putting the Jets in the national tournament in 2000, 2002 and to the Sweet 16 in 2005.
Sunday night, in the middle of the alumni room at Newman hosting a watch party for the NCAA selection show, Potter recalls the moment when Newman’s name flashed across the screen as a No. 5 seed, headed to the Rocky Mountains.
“We see Newman’s name pop and you just hear this eruption, just craziness,” Potter said. “And the guy on TV goes, ‘I bet they’re going crazy in the alumni room at Newman,’ and we were just like ... how in the world does he know that’s going on right now? It was special.”
Potter, the Heartland’s coach of the year, oversaw the Jets’ move to the NCAA Division II level, which included a two-year probationary membership period where Newman couldn’t compete for conference titles or postseason berths. This year, Newman swept the four MIAA schools in Kansas — Pittsburg State, Washburn, Fort Hays State and Emporia State — for the first time.
“We thought our body of work was good enough to get in (the NCAA Tournament), but you don’t know for sure until you see your name,” Potter said.
His path leads to Denver
Potter stopped practice Monday and did something that went against his nature.
He singled out an individual — senior point guard Bobby Wesley.
“Bobby, stand up,” Potter said. “Bobby, how long had it been since Garden City Community College went to the national tournament before you went?”
Wesley, a Garden City High product, helped lead the Broncbusters to the Region VI title in 2009. It was Garden City’s first time to the national tournament since 1956.
“A long time,” Wesley said.
“How many times had we been to the NCAA Tournament before you got here?” Potter asked.
“None,” Wesley said.
His teammates applauded.
“That was nice,” Wesley said. “We’re a family. Everything happens together, everything happens good for all of us.”
Wesley, who has torn both his anterior cruciate ligaments since coming to Newman in 2010, has never been an all-conference player. He has never averaged double-digits in points. When the Jets play their final game this year, it will also be his.
No player has ever mattered more to Newman’s program. At Garden City, it’s not uncommon to hear people say the same thing despite a list of former players that includes Keith Smart, who hit the game-winner for Indiana in the 1987 NCAA championship game, or former Kansas star Darrin Hancock. .
“Bobby is the heart and soul of this program, of this team,” Potter said. “I’ve coached for 26 years and I’ve never coached anyone like Bobby. My wife has been there every step of the way and she says he’s her favorite player, ever. You spend time with him and you just ... know. Whatever that thing it is that leaders have, he has it.”
Wesley wants to go to law school after he graduates in May with a degree in criminal justice. He wants to own his own business someday — preferably a law firm.
But before that, he wants to win a couple of more basketball games.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” Wesley asked. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s the NCAA Tournament.”
His path leads to Denver.