In March of 2020, the North Central men’s basketball team advanced to the round of 16 of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament for just the third time. But due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that game was never played. The following year, only 10 games were played, and such a short schedule didn’t feel like a true season.
This year, the Cardinals were back for a full slate hoping to pick up where they left off, despite having a very different team than the one only two wins away from the final four.
“I think we played 10 games last year, it was bizarre, like a throw-away year, it wasn’t a lot of fun,” said head coach Todd Raridon. “We really had two players back that had game experience through a whole season, and that’s Matt and Blaise, so a lot of unknowns out there.”
Blaise being Blaise Meredith, the senior and Naperville native who was poised to be the leader of a relatively young squad and set an example with the intensity he brings to every game.
“Blaise is definitely one of the best, if not the best defensive player I’ve had, said Raridon. “He’s somebody who from a defensive standpoint, you can count on him basically every night to be guarding the best player on the other team.”
Meredith lived up to expectations, averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds per game, leading the team with 14 blocks, and drawing numerous offensive fouls on his way to a second team all-conference selection. Matt Helwig, however, far exceeded what he or his coaches expected from him. He led the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin in scoring with 24.5 points-per-game, while also leading the Cardinals in rebounding and assists. He was unanimously voted to the all-conference first team and scored the second most points in a single season ever by a Cardinals men’s player.
“I don’t want to say I expected to do all this stuff this year, I just wanted to pick up the load just a little bit but it ended up being a lot bigger role than I expected,” Helwig said.
“Never saw that coming, ever,” Raridon said of Helwig’s rise. “I mean, if you knew Matt from high school to where he’s at now it’s night and day. He is a success story from hard work. He has put in the time, the effort, I couldn’t be prouder of what he’s done.”
But Helwig says he’d rather be a role player on a winning team, as he was in 2020, than the star of one that achieves less. Which is part of what’s motivated him to return for his final year of eligibility next season.
“It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, to be honest with you,” said Helwig. “Two years ago felt like I was happy playing my role, I was behind three seniors and I just had to play my role and I was happy winning.”
“He’s 100% in on ‘team,’” Raridon added. “He knows one guy can’t carry us, and that’s proof.”
While Blaise and Matt were the returning and leading contributors, there was no shortage of help from an extensive supporting cast who grew as players throughout the season. None more so than sophomore guard Shea Cupples.
“As the second half as the season started, I started finding my groove off the bench and I had a couple games there where things started clicking in the second half especially,” Cupples said. “Towards the end I started trying to be more aggressive in the first half as well.”
Cupples also may have had the Cardinals moment of the season, banking in a three-pointer to help complete a 21-point comeback and win against eventual national runners-up Elmhurst.
“That was crazy for sure, probably my craziest game this year,” Cupples remembers. “In the first half I had missed some shots but I knew ‘just keep shooting,’ just stay confident and my guys found me, I was open, I held my follow through. I did call bank, lets just say that.”
Freshmen Jon Blumeyer and Terrence Moncrief will be looked to as key pieces going forward, with Matt’s younger brother Ethan also in line for a bigger role next season. Altogether, Raridon believes this group, led by Matt Helwig, is ready to take a big step together next year.
“They grew up a lot, they had to,” he said. “Especially the freshmen, with Terrence and John, they have some experience now. They worked hard, they got better, they continued to improve, they each do something a little bit different for our program. You add Ethan Helwig into the mix who hasn’t played in our system, so to me he’s another freshman really and I thought he did extremely well. Add Shea Cupples into the mix, Brian Johnson, they all bought into the team concept.
“We love being around each other, there’s no beef with each other, we love playing with each other on the court, we love each other off the court, I think we have a lot of different personalities but it all fits in,” Cupples said.
The Cardinals reached the CCIW tournament championship game by upsetting top-seed Illinois Wesleyan, but ultimately fell to Elmhurst in the title game and did not receive and invite to the NCAA Tournament. Raridon, who recently stepped down as head coach to return to his alma mater Hastings College, hopes the young team uses that disappointment both as a learning experience and motivation as they head into an offseason sure to be full of hard work.
“Hopefully they learn something from this season, just what it takes,” Raridon said. “This past season was good but it could be great next year, but it doesn’t just happen and hopefully that’s something they take away from this season.”