MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon Nazarene University seniors Ben Falkenberg and Dan Borcherdt have displayed a tremendous amount of talent on the basketball court during their careers. They accomplished a lot in a Cougars’ uniform, but that wasn’t where they started.
Both players took similar paths getting to MVNU. Both were standout athletes in high school, and both accepted Division I offers. Both signed with U.S. military academies — Falkenberg signed with Navy and Borcherdt with Army — but that’s not where the similarities end. Both players eventually found their way to Mount Vernon.
For Borcherdt, signing on with the Black Knights seemed to be a natural fit. He played on a state championship-caliber high school squad at Archbold, and this gave him the opportunity to test his skills at the highest collegiate level possible.
“I was like most little kids and my dream was to play Division I; I was pretty focused on achieving that level. That is what I worked for my whole life,” said Borcherdt. “I had a pretty good high school career, and since that was one of the few Division I offers I received, I decided to take advantage of it.
“Obviously, I was pretty excited about having the opportunity. I went for a campus visit, and it was beautiful, maybe 75 degrees and sunny, and the campus was gorgeous. They put me in my own hotel room, and when I went into the locker room, they had my jersey hanging up and shoes set out. They reel you in right from the start. They take you out to dinner and dangle the beautiful facilities in front of you. They create the whole mindset.
“It was also a chance for me to help turn around their program, which had been struggling. Also, the education at an academy is second to none. It sounded like a pretty good all-around great deal.”
Falkenberg was also reeled in after a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy. And like Borcherdt, he had some high school success to wanted to take the plunge at the next level.
“My experience was pretty similar,” said Falkenberg. “In high school, I really didn’t score all that much. I was good in high school, but I was always on good teams where I didn’t have to score. I didn’t get a lot of big exposure. I had a real good senior year, and I started to get some interest from bigger schools, but most of them weren’t until the end of my senior year. Navy kind of came along out of no where.
“Once they get you on campus and it is a nice day, they have you. That’s how it happened for me. They have incredible facilities and they use those to win you over.”
The education they would have received also played a large role in their decisions. It was decisions, however, that ultimately were not the right fit for either player.
“It is one of those places — academically, it is unbelievable and since you’re playing Division I athletics, it is time consuming,” Borcherdt said. “On top of that, you have the whole military aspect, which is draining as well. Being 10 hours away (from home) was also a struggle for me. It was real tough. All in all, I felt like it wasn’t the right fit for me. It was a great year, and I learned a lot and grew a lot. There are things I carry with me to this day, but I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me.”
“Once I got there, boot camp was actually kind of fun for me because it was a lot of athletic stuff,” Falkenberg said. “I enjoyed that. ... I realized the more I was there that, if you are going to go to an academy, you need to go to an academy for the right reasons — to be in the military. You shouldn’t go there just because you want to play basketball. That hit me once I got there. I realized I didn’t want to be in the Navy. I respect those who choose to be in the military, but that wasn’t for me. It takes so many sacrifices. I just couldn’t imagine what that would be like. If I had wanted to be in the military, I would have definitely stayed, but I realized I didn’t want to. I decided to leave before basketball started so I didn’t get penalized with a year of eligibility.”
Since Falkenberg withdrew prior to the basketball season, he still had four years of eligibility remaining. An early interaction with men’s basketball coach Scott Flemming is what helped lead him to MVNU.
“I really didn’t even look at any other schools. I remembered visiting here early and I really like the coach a lot. Coach came up to me as a sophomore and talked to me, and I remembered that,” said Falkenberg. “He recruited me some after that, and I remembered what he was like and the guys on the team. I actually committed here without a visit while I was still at Navy. I called coach and asked him if he still had room. They were able to find a place for me and offer me some scholarship money, which I wasn’t expecting. That was probably the thing that has helped my career the most. I had such an advantage. I came here in January, practice with the team until March, and had the whole offseason to improve. Coming into my first season, I was basically a sophomore already. I was stronger, and I had best friends in the program. I was basically starting at a different level than everybody else, which really helped me.”
Flemming also recruited Borcherdt out of high school, and was disappointed when he decided on Army. He also understood, however. So, when Borcherdt decided to leave the academy, he was welcomed with open arms.
“Coach recruited me very hard out of high school, and he was tough to say no to,” Borcherdt said. “When I decided to leave West Point, my dad brought this school up, and I rally didn’t know anybody. I knew that they would be good, and I knew that I could probably come in, get good minutes and make an impact right away. I was also going to be closer to home. I came for a visit and that’s when I decided this is where I wanted to be. It gave me a chance to be successful.”
Going to a military academy taught both Borcherdt and Falkenberg a few life skills. It also helped mold them into the men they are today.
“I have a new appreciation for the little things in life,” Borcherdt said. “There, they take away your civilian clothes. You’re never seen in normal clothes. Every thing is issued and it is considered uniform. They take away those basic things.
“It gave me a greater appreciation for my family, first and foremost. I also have so much admiration for the military way of life and the people that choose to serve. I still have buddies that were on my team that are currently serving over in Afghanistan. Some of the guys that came in with me are getting ready to make that commitment as well. I have a whole new level of respect.”
“One thing that really helped me when I was there was it was a complete fresh start,” said Falkenberg. “Everyone was forming first impressions of you. It really taught me to make a good first impression. ... It helped me grow up. That was the first time that I didn’t have any family or friends to fall back on. ... The values also stuck with me. I respect the military life. I understand the sacrifices they make because I saw a portion of it. It gave me a newfound respect. It really helped me mature. Honor, courage and commitment are the core values, and I still remember those. They are things that I try to keep with me.”
For Borcherdt, life at Army was a reality check. Making the transition from high school to that type of situation was not an easy one.
“It does teach you to grow up. It is a huge culture shock to go from high school where you’re ‘The Man’ to all the way back down to, basically, ground zero. That’s their whole practice,” said Borcherdt. “They take you all the way down so they can build you back up, and it is a humbling experience. ... I felt like I had a whole new level of maturity after being at some place like West Point. Also, at boot camp, they force you to go through some stuff that you never thought you could do. I think that also is huge.”
The duo have left their mark on the Cougars’ program. Falkenberg set the all-time career scoring mark earlier this season and has 2,537 points to this point. He holds several Cougar records, including field goals made, second in 3-pointers made, second in free-throws made and 10th in assists. Borcherdt topped the 1,000-point mark earlier this season, and is one of the top free-throw shooters all-time at MVNU.
MVNU is 97-31 in Falkenberg’s four years, including a 70-22 mark with Borcherdt as his teammate. The Cougars have also made it to the last three NAIA Division II National Tournaments in Branson, Mo. This season, MVNU is 22-7 and opens the American Mideast Conference Tournament on Saturday.
“One thing that I’m proud of as a senior is I think we are graduating with the program at a level it has never been at,” Falkenberg said. “If we can make it back to the national tournament, we’ll be the first class to be there all four years. That’s what we want to be remembered for. Individual accomplishments are great, but at the end of the day, we want to be remembered as the class that helped take it to another level. ... Hopefully at the end of this year and at the end of our careers, we will achieve that.”
“As Ben referred to, it is neat to have personal success, but it is something that, at the end of the day, I would give up to go to Branson any day of the week,” added Borcherdt. “To have the guys around me, like Ben, is what attracted me to this school — that unique mix of quality guys. Ben and I have developed a relationship, and we are best friends. That’s kind of cool. We started as huge rivals, but we’ve melted into this pair that is not only good on the basketball court, but also, off the court, we are very good friends. .... We have a blast playing with each other.”
Both players attribute their current success to their days at Army and Navy, respectively. Without that foundation, albeit a short time, they don’t believe they would be the player — and person — they are today.
“To be honest, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about West Point and my experience there,” Borcherdt said. “That year was one of the most trying years of my life, but it was one of the best years of my life at the same time. It was tough, obviously, but I think I am a better person for having going through it. I’ve learned so many unique qualities from going through it. I don’t think I would be the person I am today without it.”
“If I hadn’t gone to Navy, I probably still would have been a good player here, but if I hadn’t had that year to mature and get incorporated here, I wouldn’t have had the impact I was able to from Day 1,” said Falkenberg. “I wouldn’t have been accustomed to the program. Personally, I don’t think I would be the all-time leading scorer. I just don’t see that. I made a big leap because my experience at Navy prepared me physically in a way that nothing else could. It gave me a year to mature.”
Making the move to MVNU has brought to former rivals — though they may not have known it — together, and in the process, made the Cougars a formidable opponent.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned at the academy is to be selfless,” Borcherdt said. “You put yourself aside when you go to a place like that. It is about something bigger than you. To be able to take that away and then come in here and implement it, is a great thing. ... Ben and I both could have taken the approach where we were going to try and get ours and be competitors on the court, but we didn’t. We took the approach of, ‘Let’s have fun playing and become better friends because of it.’ I think that’s one of the things that we really appreciate. We’ve been able to put our own personal goals beside us because of what we learned at the academies.”
Despite being teammates and friends, the Army-Navy rivalry stills lives on in Borcherdt and Falkenberg. Don’t let their smiles fool you; both have pride in their former schools.
“We don’t usually watch it, but when we see the scores, we always make a comment about it,” said Borcherdt. “Navy has kind of had (Army’s) number in football, but (Army) actually beat (Navy) in basketball recently. That makes it kind of fun. Just from my experience of playing there, it is something that is bigger than anything. It is huge. There is a whole ‘Beat Navy’ week. It is not a rinky-dink thing. When you beat Navy, you go to the superintendent’s house for ice cream, which is a huge deal.”
“It was a lot of fun to be a part of,” said Falkenberg. “You see it in the weight room. Every weight says, ‘Beat Navy’ on it. All over the campus there are reminders. I know OSU-Michigan is big, but I’m not sure all of their weights say ‘Beat Michigan’ on them. It is like that everywhere you go. “You go to the store to buy a shirt and half of them don’t say, ‘Navy.’ They say ‘Beat Army’ on them.”
This season has been one of trial for the Cougars. They started off with the No. 3 ranking in the NAIA Division II preseason, and won six of their first seven games. Then, the team lost six of its next 13, and doubt began to set in.
“At the middle of January, we were 12-7, and that was tough for a team that was picked in the preseason as high as we were,” Falkenberg said. “With the expectations, and not even the expectations of others, but the expectations of ourselves, I don’t think we ever thought we would be 12-7. ... Not to say that our record should be a lot better, but it could have. It didn’t, though, because we didn’t have the maturity as a team to come together when it mattered. That was something we couldn’t figure out. ... We finally just hit the hump and got over it. We won a close game at (Ohio Dominican) in the last minute, and that was the first time all year we had stayed together and won. I think we needed that feeling to mature. That moment kind of defined our season.”
The Cougars responded with a 10-game winning streak to end the regular season, and in the process earned a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the AMC Tournament.
“We got on a roll, and everyone is starting to see how good we can be,” said Falkenberg. “Winning cures a lot of things, but I think we have grown up together this year. Everybody has finally put the team above self, and it has made a big difference.”
“We had to reprove ourselves after we went to Northwest Ohio and lost by 20,” Borcherdt added. “We had to make a decision after that game. We had dropped out of the rankings totally. We, for some reason, kept thinking we were this great team, but we really weren’t. At that point, we told ourselves, ‘It is time to start proving that we are a great team.’ From that point on, we’ve proved that.”
MVNU will wait to see who it faces in the AMC Tournament, which begins tonight. No. 3 Northwestern Ohio (17-13, 9-4 AMC) and No. 6 Daemen College (20-9, 7-6 AMC) square off with the winner coming to Mount Vernon at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Today’s other first round game features No. 5 Notre Dame College (18-11, 7-6 AMC) at No. 4 University of Rio Grande (20-10, 7-6). The winner advances to No. 1 seed Walsh (25-3, 12-1 AMC) on Saturday.