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Loras vs. Nebraska Wesleyan, 2.23

Nebraska Wesleyan’s Ryan Garver (3) walks back to his teammates with the championship net after the Prairie Wolves defeated Loras 97-79 to win the American Rivers Conference Tournament title on Feb. 23.

The advice struck a chord with Ryan Garver two offseasons ago.

At the time, the Nebraska Wesleyan basketball player wanted to upgrade his shooting skills in Dale Wellman's version of the Princeton offense.

So Garver put in the time at the gym, worked on his shot and followed the words of then-assistant coach Tyler Ackley.

"Never miss short."

There's nothing short about how Garver finished his Wesleyan career. He developed into a strong shooter, played a key role in the team's run to the 2018 NCAA Division III national championship and capped his hoops career by becoming a first-team All-American.

"Probably after this year, after I'm gone for good, it will hit me and I'll be like, 'Wow, we really did something special,'" said Garver, who is the Journal Star's 2019 state college men's athlete of the year. "Everyone keeps telling us that five, 10 years down the road when we look back and people are talking about it, it's going to be that more special, and I can't wait for that."

Garver received droves of postseason accolades after averaging 15.9 points per game as senior. No Division III player dished out more assists per game than Garver (7.7), and his 62.9% shooting mark ranked 17th in the country.

The Lincoln Northeast graduate, who played through thigh and ankle injuries during the last half of his final season, finished his career with school records for single-season and career steals, and he finished eighth in career assists.

Garver, who also was a standout baseball player in high school, was recruited by Nebraska Wesleyan as a "defensive guy." It was going to be his job to come into games and wear down the opponent's best player.

As a freshman, the 6-foot-3 Garver started on the Prairie Wolves' junior varsity squad before moving up to varsity two games in. He soon found a role off the bench.

"I knew defensively what (Wellman) wanted from me, but offensively, I just didn't know what I could do," Garver said. "I wasn't much of a scorer in high school, I was more of a do-it-all guy. I really didn't know if I was going to fit in or not, but it ended up working out."

Garver played in 25 games as a sophomore, averaging 9.6 points per game. After shooting 24 percent from beyond the arc, Garver said he knew he had to become a better shooter in Wellman's system.

Helping him get there were assistant coaches Trevor Johnson and Ackley. They hammered into Garver's head the importance of shooting with confidence, and Ackley gave Garver some shooting workouts to try in the summer.

The payoff came in his junior year. Garver hit more than half of his threes (32-of-62), and shot 60% from the field while averaging 14.2 points per game. He was one one of five Prairie Wolves to average double digits in points as the team turned in a memorable national championship run.

The next step for Garver was expanding his offensive skill set.

"From a game standpoint, improving my offensive game to not just taking what was given to me," Garver said of the summer prior to his senior season. "Me being an honorable mention All-American my junior year, I knew teams were going to be out on me, so I had to be able to create my own shot more."

That was evident in the American Rivers Conference Tournament championship game. Garver hit several jump shots, was 12-of-16 from the field and finished with a career-high 33 points in a 97-79 win against Loras. He also had 10 rebounds and nine assists.

Garver's transformation as a basketball player not only impacted the Nebraska Wesleyan basketball program, it has influenced Garver's career aspirations.

It was his intention to go into business after college. Instead, he's going back to Nebraska Wesleyan for a year to work on his secondary education degree. He wants to be a teacher and a basketball coach.

"Anytime you can win as many games as we could … that's one thing, but then for me to be able to go and do what I did, it's just so much me talking with the coaches and them knowing my strengths," Garver said. "That's part of the reason I wanted to get into coaching. They showed me, 'OK, you can take somebody who's not really skilled at one part and with a certain thing, you can turn them into something really good because of the way you talk to them and the way you handle their situations."

Going back to school will also open another door for Garver. The Wesleyan football coaches approached him about playing football this fall, and Garver will put on the pads and play free safety.

"I'm excited to see what I can do out there, but also nervous," he said. "I haven't played in six, seven years now. It's a lot different, the guys are going to be a lot stronger."

For Garver, it will be another college memory he can store with the basketball ones: a national championship, three conference championships, a 57-5 record over the final two seasons, being part of a storied chapter in Wesleyan hoops history.

"The friendships that I've made, we're going to be friends for the rest of our lives," Garver said. "I hang out with these guys every single day, and you couldn't ask for a better group of teammates."

Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.

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Sports editor

Clark Grell is sports editor.

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