Vikings hit the big time

The Vikings tip off the 2004-05 season in the Stott Center tonight at 7 p.m., and in addition to seven new faces and two new coaches seated courtside something else new to the Stott Center will be present – big expectations.

Unlike the unmemorable teams that have posted four straight losing seasons, this year’s team is expected not only to win a few games, but to make a habit of it.

The Vikings start the season pegged to finish second in the Big Sky Conference by both the big Sky coaches and media – the highest preseason rankings in the program’s nine years in the conference. Street & Smith’s 2004 preseason rankings also picked the “surprise” Vikings second despite the fact the team has never finished above third.

As if that wasn’t enough, a radio ad supporting the “Our Chance to Dance” season ticket marketing campaign promises the Vikings “are poised to win the Big Sky Conference and advance” to the NCAA championship tournament.

That’s a lot of pressure on a team that hasn’t even made it into the conference tournament – one of the easiest conference tournaments to get into – in two years. But that’s pressure that third-year head coach Heath Schroyer is glad to have.

“That’s what we’re in this for. That’s what I coach for and that’s what guys play for – to try to win and try to put yourself in a position to win a championship,” said Schroyer. “It’s great that we’re at a point after a few short years where there are expectations to win.”

Senior guard Blake Walker, an honorable mention on last year’s all-conference team, is among the players who share Schroyer’s confidence that the team can live up to the heightened expectations. “I don’t think anybody can stop us on a consistent basis,” Walker said. “I don’t think we should lose any games.”

While that is likely an overly optimistic appraisal, especially considering the Vikings play at national powers Gonzaga and Ohio State, Walker’s comments are emblematic of what star forward Seamus Boxley called the team’s new “championship” attitude.

Much of the new attitude can be attributed to two critical off-season developments: the maturation of the returning players and the influx of complimentary talent.

Last year’s team brought a new level of athleticism to the Stott Center, but its reliance on five new players resulted in confusion on the court and unforced errors that translated directly into an 11-16 record. To help improve team chemistry, Schroyer and the coaching staff took all the players returning from last year to Costa Rica for six days of team-building and practice. In between playing three games, visiting sick children in hospitals and zooming over the rain forest on zip lines, assistant coach Steve Gosar noticed that something else happened, “They realized they actually liked each other a little bit more and they bonded as a team.”

Walker sees the difference in the team, “We came back home and we understood what was going on. We just jelled.” When asked how this year’s team differs from last year’s, Walker didn’t hesitate, “Everybody’s bought into the system, everybody’s together and on the same page.”

In Boxley and Walker, the Vikings return two of the best players in the conference and thanks to a solid recruiting class and the best returning seniors in the conference they will be surrounded by the deepest squad to take the Stott Center floor since the program was restarted in 1996.

Instead of worrying about rankings and expectations Boxley and the Vikings are focused on one thing, “I’m looking forward for the chance to win a championship.”

Gosar knows what the key is: “Quite honestly it all comes down to the conference year and that’s what makes or breaks your season.”

Getting to the conference tournament and winning a game would bring respect to the program. Getting there and winning the tournament would land the Vikings on CBS in March Madness.

The Vikings should be able to take advantage of a depleted Big Sky Conference that looks to be open for the taking. Like many mid-major conferences, the Big Sky relies heavily on junior college transfers and developing overlooked talent. Last year, the league said goodbye to seven of the top nine scorers and four of the top six rebounders (the other two remaining leaders in each statistic were Boxley and Walker), in addition to many key starters and role players.

Ticket sales are up, there’s a buzz in the Stott Center and the players and coaches are ready to try and live up to the expectations that have been put on them. Predicting success for a Viking sports team has never been a profitable way to make a living, but if the Vikings play to their potential it might truly be “our chance to dance.”