May 26, 2009. Thirty-three-year-old Ryan Looney is officially announced as the new head men’s basketball coach for Seattle Pacific. He has stepped up on the coaching ladder, moving from the NAIA Division-II program at Eastern Oregon to the NCAA Division-II Falcons’ program.
He takes over for the departed Jeff Hironaka, who left to assist fellow ex-SPU head coach Ken Bone at Washington State. Looney has a tall order to fill, inheriting a team coming off a 19-10 record and second-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Flash forward four years, eight months and 13 days. Feb. 8, 2014. SPU has just registered its ninth straight win and capped a road sweep of its Alaskan conference opponents to move to 20-4 on the season.
More importantly, the win marks the fifth straight season with 20 or more wins for the Falcons, a new school record. Looney has more than met the challenge.
“SPU has had a tradition of success,” Looney said. “My plan was to not necessarily change anything, but just to do what I could to build upon it.”
The Falcons traveled to Alaska last week for their last major road trip of the season and took on Great Northwest Athletic Conference foes Anchorage and Fairbanks. Clutch play in the last few minutes allowed the team to pull away and secure an 88-76 victory over Anchorage on Thursday, while a career-high rebounding effort from junior Matt Borton carried the squad to a 67-56 win over Fairbanks.
The Falcons broke open a 70-70 tie with 2:28 on the clock in the Anchorage game, registering the next 11 points to ensure their streak would stay alive. On Saturday, in addition to Borton’s career-high 14 boards and additional 11 points, senior forward Patrick Simon and Penner paced both teams scoring-wise with 18 points apiece.
Rebounding is one of the areas that Looney and his coaching staff have emphasized in improving the program over the past few years. They realize that scoring is only one part of the equation and that the team has to be solid in every facet of play in order for success.
“It comes down to how focused he is on the details,” sophomore guard Mitch Penner said. “There’s a lot of things that coaches in high school and AAU ball didn’t notice, with for example scouting and running the offense. He really makes a point to keep us focused on the little things, and they add up for us leading to winning so much at the end of the day.”
Looney is quick to attribute the credit to his team and away from himself, though, applauding both their skill and effort.
“It’s a testament to the great players we’ve had in our program,” Looney said. “We fight every day to establish consistency, and that statistic [five-straight 20-win seasons] just represents that.”
The successful road trip was particularly rewarding for Looney and the Falcons because the annual Alaska stint is notoriously taxing.
“There’s a couple trips on the schedule that we circle at the beginning of the season as ones that have been extremely challenging for us,” Looney said. “The first of those is at Billings, Montana, and we were able to get out of there with a close win. The second one is Alaska. It’s grueling; it’s long. You’re gone from Wednesday to Sunday. The weather is extremely cold, and right now both those teams are very good. So for us to go up there and get two wins and now be able to come home for two weeks is extremely important.”
The Falcons only have one road game left on their schedule, a matchup with Northwest Nazarene in relatively nearby Nampa, Idaho. With only five games left on the regular season schedule, the team is fine-tuning for the postseason in a few weeks.
“We will need to stay consistent and keep the same level of focus for each game for the rest of the year,” Simon said. “As of late, we have been playing much better defense and have been out-rebounding our opponents, which will need to continue.”
The team’s 20-4 record places them solely in first place in the GNAC standings, but with only a half-game lead over rival Western Washington. They’ll get a chance to back up their road victory from January and strengthen their lead over the Vikings in a prime home-court showcase this coming Saturday. As always, though, they’re focused on the next game on their schedule first — Thursday night against Simon Fraser.
“They’ve been playing much better recently,” Looney said. “They almost beat Western their last game, and so that’s our only task we’re focused on right now.”