For the first time in its history, the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzlies basketball team is the number one team in the nation.
The Grizzlies (22-2) received that honor Feb. 1 when the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) released its weekly rankings for Division I men's basketball ,showing the team at the top of the 25-team list. (See www.njcaa.org for the complete poll listing.)
"It is very humbling to be ranked No. 1 in the nation," head coach Yancey Walker said. "I am very happy for our team, our staff, our university and our fans. I'm also aware that there are some founders of the program who are no longer with us, and I am sorry they did not get to experience this honor with us. This is something the entire community can be proud of, and we want everyone to feel pride in the fact that we are all No. 1, not just the basketball team."
"To be ranked No. 1 at any level, especially at the NJCAA level, gives you a great feeling," assistant coach Damon Francis added. "This group of young men has done a great job of earning this ranking. They have put in a lot of hard work this past summer, this fall and throughout the season. They have put in a lot of hours in the weight room, in the gym getting shots up, watching film and at practice to get to the No. 1 NJCAA ranking. I am very proud of these young men, and I am excited to be a part of this team."
Until now, the highest the Grizzlies had ever been ranked by the NJCAA during a season was No. 2 in the Feb. 15, 2000, poll and in the Jan. 25, 2011, poll.
But an 84-81 loss by the former No. 1 team, Connors State College of Warner, Okla., to Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa on Jan. 27, opened the door to the No. 1 ranking for the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, recorded an 88-81 win over State Fair Community College of Sedalia, Mo., Jan. 25 at the West Plains Civic Center and an 88-46 victory over Mid-South Community College in West Memphis Jan. 29 to cement their claim on the top spot.
"We are very proud of Coach Walker and our Grizzly Basketball team," Missouri State-West Plains Chancellor Drew Bennett said. "This is an historic moment for Grizzly Athletics, bringing prestige and positive attention to our community."
"After we acknowledge the fact that the season isn't over and there is a lot of basketball yet to be played, it's still appropriate to pause for a moment and realize that Coach Walker and Assistant Coach Damon Francis have led us to heights never before experienced in the impressive history of Grizzly Basketball," said Dr. Herb Lunday, dean of student services and athletic director. "It is truly a great day to be a Grizzly."
Walker acknowledged a lot of hard work remains on the horizon for the Grizzlies.
"The No. 1 position has been transient these past few weeks, and we need to do our best to hold this spot for a while. I like the fact that it (the ranking) adds something extra to fight for in each game. I've said before, we need to make sure we are the hunter, not the hunted."
Walker said he feels "very blessed and very fortunate" to be coaching the No. 1 team in the nation, pointing out this is the first time either he or Francis has coached a collegiate No. 1 team. "The Good Lord has always put the right people in my life at the right time to make sure I'm on the right path, and this is no exception. This group has a chance to continue making history this season. That is why we have to continue working," Walker said.
The Grizzly basketball program began in 1993, and its teams have competed at the NJCAA's Division I level since its inception.
The program is part of NJCAA's Region 16, which also includes Three Rivers Community College of Poplar Bluff, Mo.; State Fair Community College; Mineral Area College, Park Hills, Mo.; and Moberly Area Community College, Moberly, Mo. The Grizzlies have won two Region 16 titles and recorded numerous wins over highly competitive and nationally-ranked teams over the years.
Bennett pointed out the No. 1 ranking also is a long-awaited honor for Grizzlyfans, whose support has been instrumental in the continued success of the program. "We are especially grateful to those Grizzly fans who have stuck with us through thick and thin to make this moment possible," Bennett added. "In order to support the Grizzlies, we ask everyone to come to the games, become a booster member and consider sponsoring our quality athletic programs."
For more information about the Grizzlies Basketball program, visit the team's Web site at www.wp.missouristate.edu/grizzly/bb.htm or call the Grizzly basketball office at 417-255-7993.