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May 4, 2009The 2008-09 season was one that may have been completely unforeseen by many a WKU fan.
But after finishing 25-9 and seconds away from a second Sweet 16 appearance, the Toppers have again shot to the forefront of the college basketball landscape. Except with their university president, that is.
President Gary Ransdell spoke briefly, congratulating the Toppers on their season, but he had to leave, not too long after the 6 pm start of the men's basketball team banquet. He had to make it to the Garrett Conference Center to catch the banquet of the forensics team, which had won its sixth AFA national championship in April.
But Ransdell still had some words of wisdom for coach Ken McDonald.
"I told Ken this morning, I'll be glad to come back when you can match that," Ransdell told the crowd, jokingly.
Leave it to Ransdell to show his support as always, but also stick to his commitments.
It's been a season that few associated with WKU will forget and one that officially wrapped up with the banquet, held in the Topper Club of Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
"This year was really special, just knowing the transition that we went though and the fact that no one gave WKU a true shot at any kind of post-season success," athletics director Wood Selig said. "Everyone talked about all the players and talent that we lost. Nobody was talking about everybody that was coming back. It was more of what we didn't have versus what we did have, including a rookie head coach and a bunch of assistants who were unproven. It was rewarding to see our seniors as well as our new coaching staff have the type of year that they enjoyed and have the type of run in the NCAA Tournament that they enjoyed."
After a catered dinner, Selig spoke and thanked each senior, Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Mike Walker, Japeth Aguilar and Matt Maresca for their services at WKU.
Selig mentioned his story of stepping over the copy of USA Today at his hotel in Portland, Ore. after the Toppers defeated Illinois in the NCAA Tournament. Selig said he did a double take, seeing Maresca on the cover and grabbed all eight copies in front of rooms on the way to the elevator.
In thanking McDonald and summarizing why the consensus was that McDonald was the right coach for WKU, Selig mentioned four things that stuck out in the interview. McDonald said the Topper program was built to win, that there was no ceiling, that he had to have the right assistants (getting all three that he wanted) and that every team would be trademarked by championship effort.
It's been a sentiment that WKU has embraced and advertised since Mac's arrival.
There were plenty if light moments of the banquet. A video was shown in which the players thanked everyone for coming out and introduced the next player. This included sophomore forward Sergio Kerusch saying that sophomore forward Steffphon Pettigrew has muscles even coming out of his head and junior guard Anthony Sally standing next to a 'Big Bird' cut-out, in reference to junior forward Jeremy Evans.
The video concluded with Mendez-Valdez cracking on McDonald's hair. After the video, McDonald jokingly responded.
"Orlando, I always have the microphone last," he said. "Let's roll the blooper tape."
But McDonald also painted a picture of next season, in which a strong schedule lies ahead. The coach said the definite out of conference games include games at LSU, Louisville and South Carolina. Home games will be against Mississippi State, Houston, Tulane, Evansville and Southern Illinois. McDonald said a home and home series could be in the works with Vanderbilt and that WKU is working on series with two other teams.
Ransdell may have had to miss the conclusion to the season, but he and the rest of the Topper faithful sure didn't miss the thrilling ride to get here.
McDonald to Create Scholarship
Perhaps the biggest note from the evening came at the very end of the banquet. McDonald announced that he will be giving a $1,000 scholarship to someone from Mendez-Valdez's hometown of San Antonio.
The scholarship, which may be split up, will go to one or more students from San Antonio of Mendez-Valdez's choosing that plan to go to college, not having to be WKU.
"I've always wanted to do something for him," McDonald said. "He's meant a lot and throughout the year, I realized how special he was. We had a connection, for whatever reason and it kinda grew."
McDonald, a Providence, R.I. native, was the first from his family to graduate college, as was Mendez-Valdez.
"The bottom line is, it's funny, because an Irishman from North Providence and a Mexican from San Antonio, we get together and we end up having all these things in common," McDonald said. "We're different ages, but the bottom line is, when you get to someone and you respect what he's going through and he respects what you have gone through in your life and you start to talk, it's a small world. Then, how hard he worked. The kid never stopped working and I appreciate his efforts. That's what all of this was about."
From the outset, the coach and the senior guard seemed to click. Mendez-Valdez repeatedly said that McDonald was the difference this season in helping him become the Sun Belt Player of the Year.
"I was really trying not to get emotional," Mendez-Valdez said. "That's an award that goes a long way. That's more than material and that's more than a lot. It means a lot to me after all the struggles I've been through and everything I've been through throughout my life, for Coach Mac to be able to recognize that and put a scholarship under my name, it means a lot and I'm really excited about it."
The following were the season-ending individual awards given out:
Clem Haskins Most Valuable Player: Orlando Mendez-Valdez and AJ Slaughter
E.A.Diddle Award: Orlando Mendez-Valdez
Danny Rumph Outstanding Teammate Award: Japeth Aguilar and Matt Maresca
Ralph Crosthwaite Field Goal Accuracy Award: Jeremy Evans
Darel Carrier Free Throw Accuracy Award: Orlando Mendez-Valdez
Tom Marshall Rebounder of the Year: Sergio Kerusch
Dwight Smith Play Maker of the Year: AJ Slaughter
John Oldham Most Improved Player Award: Anthony Sally
Bobby Rascoe Defensive Player of the Year Award: Steffphon Pettigrew
Dixie Mahurin Academic Award: Dejan Cvoro
Jones Family Appreciate Award: Mike Simpson
Ole Miss NEWS