“We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner; now I am the master,” is what Darth Vader said to Obi Wan Kenobi before their epic battle in Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope. Since Slippery Rock men’s basketball head coach Kevin Reynolds joined the program in May of 2008, a team that could not buy a winning season for nine years, has emerged as one of the most dominant forces in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and the team everyone wants to play, Reynolds said.
“We really ended up having 17 rivalry games,” Reynolds said. “It made us get better quicker. We have to have our A-game on more nights than the typical team, because we are getting everyone else’s.”
While Reynolds and SRU treat every game as another one they have to win, some teams bring more than just a win or a loss to the Rock, creating epic battles for the Green and White in its quest to become the Master of the PSAC.
Three teams rank amongst the top competitors in the PSAC West: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Gannon University, and Slippery Rock. While SRU faces other teams in the conference, its games against the other top schools go beyond regular season play and bring what Reynolds called “the best crowds” to the games.
“It’s been more competitive than you think with the overall wins,” Reynolds said. “In the seven seasons that I’ve been here, IUP has won 185 games, we’ve won 138, Gannon 137, and Mercyhurst 125. In the last seven years those are your top four teams.”
Both IUP and Gannon recognize the intensity and importance of the games against SRU. While IUP sits as the conference’s top competition with the most wins since the start of Reynolds tenure and finishing second in the NCAA Division II National Championship last season, the Crimson Hawks did not take on the Rock with ease.
Indiana played three close games against Slippery Rock last season. While winning two out of three of the contests, one that knocked SRU out of the NCAA Division II Atlantic Region Championships, IUP head coach Joe Lombardi said those wins did not come easy.
“They make us bring our best,” Lombardi said. “Not only physically, but mentally too.”
Lombardi said that a game against The Rock brings out the best in the crowds. An ongoing school rivalry on and off the court adds value to the game and brings out a large number of fans from both schools, he said.
“We try to make all games equal,” Lombardi said. “But athletes and students just always want this one a little more.”
Gannon does not bring the same history of a rivalry to Morrow Field House when they come to play the Rock, but the Golden Knights know how to bring out a crowd and not let SRU pursue the PSAC crown without a fight.
The Green and White could not outlast Gannon for the majority of the 2014-2015 season. The Rock lost three straight games, including a 71-45 blowout in the quarterfinals of the PSAC Championship. SRU would redeem themselves in the first round of the regional playoffs, when they would defeat the PSAC champions and end its season. Golden Knights head coach John Reilly said that the lost was an upset, but not a surprise.
“Even though we won three times, we could’ve lost any of those games,” Reilly said. “They were just the hungrier team that day.”
Reynolds, the Rock’s coach, loves the atmosphere of the game. Both opposing coaches said that games against SRU were the best turnouts. The Rock’s attendance has made a drastic change over the years, he said. It was last in attendance when Reynolds first became coach, he said, but with more wins over the years, that ranking rose drastically.
“To go from eighteenth to third in a seven year period says a lot about other people noticing what the team has been able to do,” Reynolds said.
The team’s home court performance, 13-1 last season, is the reason it gets such a great fan base, especially from the students, he said. One of, if not the best, home court records in the entire conference and a great support behind it comes from the fact that they are winning against teams with more funding. Reynolds said that people support that.
“When these other bigger fully funded teams come in, it’s like David versus Goliath,” Reynolds said. “When they come in, the school rallies. Those schools have the money and have the big, new arenas, but we don’t have those things, I think everyone makes the game more special.”
Some people appreciate the smaller Rock facilities when its fans go there. Coach Lombardi said that when his Crimson Hawks have to take the trip to Slippery Rock, he looks forward to it. He said the small gym gets filled up and has the feeling of an intense high school playoff game.
The “Rock Rowdies” do not only make a presence at home, but also make their way to the opposing schools’ courts as well. Reynolds said that The Rock really knows how to fill up a big arena like IUP’s and Gannon’s.
The Rock has a long way to go until it has the opportunity to face either of its conference division foes. SRU will face the first of the two in early January of 2016. With Golden Knights head coach Reilly being unsure of its teams future because of youth and Coach Lombardi going into the new season with a fresh start mindset, despite being the national championship runner-up, Reynolds is not letting anything in the past affect the team’s future, but keeping the expectation high.
“Everyone starts out zero and zero,” Reynolds said. “We are not sneaking up on anyone anymore, people are hunting us now. Now, Slippery Rock is a national team, so when you play Slippery Rock it’s a big game.”
Reynolds has the confidence that SRU can prove to be master of the PSAC since the last time he and his team faced their division rivals. A long season that includes home and away games at both Gannon and IUP sit in front of The Rock in its quest for a championship.