Nebraska Wesleyan was on Dale Wellman’s radar screen long before the Prairie Wolves hired him as their men’s basketball coach in June, 2014.
He played in the NCAA Division III national tournament in 1997 and 1998 at the University of the South, and in those two seasons, NWU was the national runner-up in one (1997) and went 23-3 the next season, winning 23 games to start before losing three straight games to end it, falling in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
When Wellman started his coaching career in 2002 over becoming an architectural historian, he kept one eye focused on the task in front of him and the other on the possibility that the NWU job might come open.
“I knew they (NWU) were really a strong Division III program when I was playing, I knew what kind of facilities they had and I had been to Lincoln before, and it was a lot like Lexington, Kentucky, where I grew up,” said Wellman, who has guided this year’s team to the fifth Final Four appearance in school history.
“I kept track of how they were doing every year, and I always thought this was a job I would apply for if it ever came open.”
It did come open after Wellman spent six years at Alfred (New York) University, turning a program that went 2-23 the year before he arrived there into an 18-9 team his final season when he was named the Empire 8 Conference Coach of the Year.
And it’s been onward and upward for NWU ever since. In Wellman’s first two seasons, his uptempo style of offense helped Trey Bardsley shine. The Beatrice graduate and deadly three-point shooter earned first-team NAIA All-American honors as well as the Jostens Award for the top NCAA Division III player.
After Bardsley graduated in 2016, the players from Wellman’s first two NWU recruiting classes emerged and have taken the Prairie Wolves to a new level with a chance to win the school’s first national championship in men’s basketball this weekend in Salem, Virginia.
While Wellman, 81-32 in his four seasons at NWU, has continued to land players from traditional strongholds like Lincoln (Northeast graduate Ryan Garver) and the smaller communities in central and eastern Nebraska (Wood River graduate Nate Bahe), it’s been his ability to bring in players from previously untapped larger metro areas like Omaha and suburban Kansas City that’s elevated the Wolves to new heights.
Wellman is a disciple of position-less basketball. He wants players with length, athleticism, ballhandling, passing and shooting skills. It means that everyone on the floor not only shoots threes, but can also post up inside to take advantage of mismatches and rebound.
And without athletic scholarships at the Division III, his prospects also have to be high-achieving in the classroom as well to snag those academic scholarships.
He enthusiastically sells style of play, Wesleyan’s facilities and well-respected academic reputation and the opportunity to live in a Big Ten college town.
It was enough to convince four of NWU’s top 10 players to leave the Kansas City area — 6-foot-5 junior Cooper Cook of Overland Park, Kansas; 6-6 sophomore Jack Hiller of Olathe, Kansas; 6-3 sophomore Dylan Dirks of Shawnee, Kansas; and 6-foot sophomore Kasey Conklin, also of Shawnee — to come north.
While Wellman picked up 6-4 Omaha Benson grad Deion Wells-Ross, the only senior in the program, as a transfer two years ago from Midland, he was able to bring in first-team Super-Stater, 6-4 sophomore Nate Schimonitz, directly from Creighton Prep and 6-1 sophomore Austin Hall from Millard West.
Cook, a Kansas all-stater from Blue Valley North, followed in his dad’s footsteps at NWU. Cook’s father, Kevin Cook, was a two-time NCAA Division III All-American, just like his son is now. And the elder Cook, a former Lincoln Northeast all-stater, was on two Final Four teams (1985 & ’86).
Wellman used Kevin Cook’s coach at NWU, Jerry Schmutte, to break the ice and give him the inside track to Cooper Cook.
“My dad never pushed Wesleyan on me, he told me to find a school that’s right for me,” said Cooper Cook, who also considered Division II William Jewell and Northwest Missouri State before selecting NWU.
“When Coach Wellman came down and told me about the new system they brought in, that attracted me here.”
He’s never looked back. Cooper Cook is a two-time all-Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference first-team selection who averages 16.5 points and six rebounds per game and is the school’s record holder for blocked shots in a career.
And the accounting major was just recently named the NCAA Division III men’s basketball Academic All-American of the Year.
It was the same way with Hiller, who went off for 30 points in Saturday’s quarterfinal win over No. 1 Whitman. Wellman and his assistants had watched Hiller in an AAU tournament in Kansas City the summer before his senior year, but were unable to get his contact information when they were there.
Not long after that, “we got an email from Jack’s father with a highlight tape and right away we recognized him as the player we really liked at that tournament,” Wellman said. “We got a little lucky there and we were able to pursue him hard after that.”
Schimonitz, who averages 17.3 points per game and hit the game-winner in the Sweet 16 win over host Wisconsin-Platteville, had high school friends coming to NWU, so he decided to give the school consideration.
“I saw I was a perfect fit for what coach wants to do here, so I ended up coming here,” Schimonitz said.
Now that NWU has their foot in the door both in Kansas City and Omaha, “hopefully those guys will be like Pied Piper and more players will follow them here,” Wellman said.