As I’ve taken some time to reflect on the season that was for the Cleveland State Vikings men’s basketball program, the one constant remains pride. As a CSU senior and former employee of the basketball team, I have seen this program in some of its more dire straights from an up close and personal point of view. From the days of mass transfers, to academic problems galore, this program has been through the wringer over the better part of the last decade. To see what Dennis Gates and his staff have done in two very inordinate seasons is nothing short of miraculous.
Gates’ second season at the helm saw an influx of impactful newcomers combined with seasoned veteran leadership. Statistically, Cleveland State was led all season long by senior first team all Horizon League member Torrey Patton. The second year Viking scored just under 15 points per game, in addition to being the team’s leading rebounder. Patton was a major force all season long for the Vikings, but the senior had some of his best games near the end of the season when CSU needed it most, as he did in his junior season as well.
The Vikes also received major contributions all year from a pair of juniors; Tre Gomillion and D’Moi Hodge. Gomillion earned defensive player of the year honors in the Horizon League, while Hodge’s season was highlighted by a 46-point outburst on his birthday, in CSU’s second of five matchups against Purdue Fort Wayne, and a game winning assist to Deante Johnson in Cleveland State’s road victory in Dayton versus Wright State. Both Gomillion and Hodge will be integral pieces of the operation next season with the anticipated departures of Patton, Craig Beaudion, and Al Eichelberger.
Cleveland State big man Eichelberger also deserves a tremendous amount of recognition for his contributions. The grad student came into the season earning preseason second team all Horizon League accolades. Unfortunately for Eichelberger, his season was derailed by multiple nagging injuries to his foot and knee. He played sparingly for CSU most of the regular season, with his workload increasing as the season went on. Despite the injuries, Eichelberger remained engaged all year long.
When asked following his heroic overtime three point shot in the conference tournament versus Purdue Fort Wayne to evaluate what has been personally a disappointing season, Eichelberger expressed gratitude for the season the team was having. He said he did not care about personal statistics or accolades, as the goals of the team were what everyone was working towards. In a day and age where many college athletes look for the best personal opportunity to seek a chance at a shot at the pros, Eichelberger showed an unbelievable amount of leadership all season long by sticking with his team despite the constant injuries.
One cannot properly reflect on the 2020-2021 Cleveland State Vikings without giving proper acknowledgement to the “bench mob.” Captained by Jeremy Sanchez and Ben Sternberg, the CSU bench was a constant source of energy all season, in a year where fans were not permitted to attend games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has Sternberg become somewhat of a local celebrity though his tenacious spirit and incredible story, but the entire bench unit all made the most of their minutes on the floor. Cleveland State benefited from multiple significant performances from bench contributors such as Chris Greene, Jayson Woodrich, Yahel Hill, and Al Eichelberger.
Gates likes to break down the season into multiple phases. While the Vikings were unable to complete their final phase of winning a national championship, they had an historic year that fans of the program will remember for their entire lives. Not only has Gates and his staff cultivated a transformational environment for their players on the floor, but the seriousness in which Gates’ student-athletes take their off the floor responsibilities is extremely refreshing and reassuring as a classmate of these players. Genuine people attract others that are just as genuine, and the relationships that Gates has with not only his staff, but perhaps most importantly his players are at the forefront of the Vikings’ turnaround.
I circle back to the feeling of pride. I’m not only extremely proud of this season’s results, but I also take great solace in the fact that Cleveland State has a head coach and staff that young people can relate to and confide in. Culture remains a buzzword in sports at both the amateur and professional levels. Gates’ culture at Cleveland State will be the most sustainable aspect of their program; and for that, I am proud.