While revisiting the past, Cleveland State builds a legacy in the present

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Cirque du Soleil paid to use the Wolstein Center for five days over Thanksgiving weekend, and the venue that’s often struggled to fill its calendar given its location just down the street from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse just can’t turn that kind of money down.

That forced Cleveland State’s women’s and men’s basketball teams to play their Viking Invitational games at Woodling Gymnasium, the primary home of both programs from its 1973 construction until 1991. For its part, the university made the best of the inconvenience, ordering retro-styled jerseys for the two teams, re-activating some retired logos (that a couple were asynchronous with the facility was a forgivable sin), and leaning into its history as much as possible.

Those moves made a lot of sense, because for most people, Woodling means 1986. It means Kevin Mackey, Mouse McFadden, and the run ‘n stun. It means an upset of Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, a Sweet 16 appearance, and a label as “the first Cinderella,” since the Vikings were, at the time, the lowest seed to ever make it to the second weekend, as the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams only the year before.

Though Mackey’s Vikings never hit that lofty mark again, the team did have an underrated run during subsequent years, following up their first taste of March Madness with a pair of 20-win seasons and NIT trips, heady stuff for a school that had never played in the postseason before those three bids. The whole package, fueled by Mackey’s Boston-accented charisma, was one driver of the hubris that led to the construction of Woodling’s oversized successor, the building now known as the Wolstein Center (the irony of the newer building’s white elephant status largely causing the throwback celebration was not lost to all).

Since then, Cleveland State has always been chasing 1986 in different ways. That’s partly because of the on-court success, and partly because the school is contemplating replacing the Wolstein Center while managing its hefty costs until that happens by doing things like switching home courts for a week, but mostly because of the relevance that it brought what was a still-young university both locally and nationally. For years – decades – CSU has struggled to capture a crowded local market, either though interest in its sports teams, or even when it comes to attracting students. It’s always been primarily a school of convenience, drawing commuters seeking a degree at a reasonable price who don’t engage with the campus beyond their classes, then graduate and mostly forget about the place.

In other words, it’s always been a school for people who would rather be elsewhere.

The Vikings have had some on-court success since the 1980s, of course. The most prominent resurgence was during the Gary Waters era, when a Norris Cole-led squad upset Wake Forest in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The current Dennis Gates-to-Daniyal Robinson stretch, which includes the program’s third Horizon League title, meets most arbitrary standards for achievement as well.

But largely, it’s still 1986 that makes people choose to be at Cleveland State ahead of those other periods. That’s true of my mother, a two-time graduate who occasionally needs to be reminded of Cole’s existence, while lighting up over the names of Mackey, McFadden, Clinton Smith and Clinton Ransey nearly 40 years later. It’s also true of people like Steve Greenberg and Jeremy Levine, who visited Woodling on Wednesday to retrace the steps of their fathers, one of whom was longtime Vikings play-by-play man and Cleveland institution Les Levine.

Chris Kielsmeier certainly appreciated their presence.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories this week, and we just had a couple in the locker room that shared a lot of legacy, what it was like when they were little kids here,” he said of the visit from Greenberg and Levine. “I love stuff like that. That’s why you live life, to create moments and memories, to be able to tell stories and create a legacy for yourself, whether it’s athletics or not.”

It wasn’t a perfect reunion for everyone – Robinson admitted to having issues with the facility during a candid moment after his game on Saturday, while a stat-free scoreboard annoyed broadcaster Al Pawlowski at times – but all in all, it was a well-executed nostalgia bump that served its purpose.

There was just one awkward problem: the Woodling Gymnasium era wasn’t particularly memorable or successful for CSU’s women’s team. When Carmen Villalobos, Jordana Reisma and Grace Ellis donned their yellow-trimmed fauxback jerseys with a script “Vikings” across the front, it’s unlikely that they were channeling their forebears who went 55-137 during Mackey’s run with the men’s team.

That’s not to say that the women’s team didn’t have a moment or two at Woodling, as the program enjoyed some modest success during women’s basketball’s wild west AIAW era, before the NCAA began sanctioning the sport in the early 1980s. They even went 23-6 in 1982-83 behind players like Dianne Foster and Sue Koziol, both of whom are still prominently placed in the Vikings’ record book. But mostly, outside of that blip and Kailey Klein’s career in the late 2000s (well after the team had switched arenas, of course), women’s basketball is still in search of its defining era.

A certain liberty springs from that reality though, since they only need to be concerned with what they’re building right now, instead of chasing a fleeting moment in time that remains the measuring stick for anything the men’s program accomplishes.

It’s worth circling back to Greenberg and Levine for a minute, because while they both enjoyed revisiting the history of men’s basketball, it was largely the present of the women’s team that caused them to be at Cleveland State that day.

The duo co-founded Greenie Sports Cards, a dealer that, this past summer, worked with Destiny Leo to produce a limited-edition basketball card of the Vikings superstar. For her part, Leo then made promotional show appearances and signed a bunch of cardboard, with each autographed card retailing for $20. The experience was successful enough that Greenie is doubling down on its relationship with CSU women’s basketball, announcing at the game on Wednesday that they will produce cards for the rest of the team.

“Jeremy and I now have the chance to keep the tradition of being a Viking,” Greenberg said in a social media post. “Can’t wait to make our cards for the entire [team].”

They weren’t alone in Woodling’s bleachers; while Vikings home crowds still have plenty of room to grow, it’s notable they turned out in their typical size during a holiday week and, on Saturday, opposite the biggest game of the year for Ohio State’s football team – one of the many sports entities that typically draws local attention away from the mid-major school sandwiched between Carnegie and Payne Avenues.

Kielsmeier, as ever, is encouraged by those indications of spiking interest, both within his program and nationally.

“How stinkin’ hot is women’s basketball right now? It’s all over the TV, the game is in the best hands that it’s ever been, the Final Four being here is [great], we just need more hype and more excitement,” he said.

Nothing generates hype and excitement like winning, wherever the court happens to be located, and the Vikings have certainly done plenty of that over the last few years. The women’s program has matched Mackey’s peak with three consecutive postseason appearances, one in March Madness, and really only needs to check off the “regular season conference championship” and “NCAA Tournament victory” boxes before the goal simply becomes “okay, now more of that stuff.” Championships in multi-team events barely move the needle next to those accomplishments, but it’s still worth mentioning that CSU swept the Viking Invitational field for a second straight season last week.

In most objective ways of looking at things, the glory days for women’s basketball were interrupted by the visit to Woodling, not remembered by it. Kielsmeier winning his 100th game at Cleveland State in the old barn on Friday drove that point home in a particularly heavy-handed way.

“I’m a huge moments and memories and legacy guy,” he said. “I embrace everything that we’ve built, and all of the hard work our administration, our staff, former staff, former players, all that stuff is powerful to me.”

“That’s what they have an opportunity to do, is to create that legacy and create those moments that somebody wants to talk about you someday because of how much you impacted their life. Sometimes as a young person, you don’t feel that, you don’t really, truly appreciate that. I hope they learned something from those stories, because that’s what we’re living right now.”

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