“When they strapped on their shoes, they didn’t lose.” Former head coach Grant Schmidt stated it as simply and as fittingly as possible when describing the 2004-05 Concordia University men’s basketball team. Or as team leader Jason Jisa called themselves, these guys were “junkyard dogs.” As a whole, the members of this unforgettable squad elevated themselves to legendary status as it pertains to the history of the entire Concordia Bulldogs Athletics Department.
In an interview conducted in the summer of 2018, Schmidt praised the team effusively for its competitive spirit. At the time of the 2004-05 campaign, it was Schmidt’s 16th season as head coach of his alma mater.
“We had this relentless defensive team so we became a miserable team to try to play against,” Schmidt said. “Offensively the chemistry was excellent because the team leader was the most unselfish guy on the floor. He was also the most valuable player. The ball movement, the shot selection and the enjoyment of playing together was a constant. These were guys that would play just as hard in a Y-league game at noon as they would play in the national tournament. That was their personality.”
Some members of this famed team appeared back on campus in late January when the program acknowledged the 15th anniversary of its accomplishments. To this day, the ’04-05 group remains the only one in program history to reach the national championship game. It piled up a still-intact school record of 32 wins after beginning the season at 13-0. They hoisted the GPAC tournament championship trophy, made the old PE Gym rock and roll and relished the underdog role. They scoffed at a GPAC preseason ranking of seventh.
As the engineer who brought glory to Concordia hoops, Schmidt had a way of melding teams together while integrating transfers. Many of the top players during the Schmidt era were indeed transfers. The 2004-05 squad employed a number of them. Stars like Jisa (University of Nebraska) and Jon Ziegler (Concordia University, Wisconsin) had first tried their hand at football before convening in Seward. The 6-foot-9 shot blocking extraordinaire Marcus Wernke arrived via Phoenix College. There were plenty of other key pieces, each of the following from within the state of Nebraska, in Scott Beck (Scribner), Ben Buhr (Lincoln), Steve Carretto (Wisner) and Wes Gehring (Columbus).
Unranked to begin the season, the Bulldogs hinted at what was to come by upsetting 11th-ranked Bellevue, 76-68, behind 22 points from Ziegler in the opener. It took until Dec. 11 before they finally lost a game. One of those few defeats came at No. 2 Northwestern, 75-69, in February in a showdown of the league’s highest rated squads (Concordia was ranked fourth at the time). It was only a blip. One of the nation’s top defensive teams was effectively squeezing the life out of opponents. It limited foes to 63.4 points per game and to 41.5 percent shooting.
“It was definitely everyone contributing to that,” Ziegler said. “I think the biggest thing that stood out was how competitive all of us were. We all absolutely hated to lose. There were times when we got heated with each other, but in a good way. We read each other’s minds so well. We knew what the other guy was thinking. You don’t find that too often. That team was very special.”
The 1991-92 men’s basketball team was the first in school history to prove that Concordia could compete with the big boys on the national stage. Over the next 13 years, Bulldog basketball continued to make a name for itself. In March of 2005, Concordia navigated the national tournament bracket in Branson, Mo., by knocking off Trinity Christian (Ill.), Flagler (Fla.), Cornerstone (Mich.) and Cedarville (Ohio).
The victory over Cornerstone is one for Bulldog lore. Concordia trailed by 17 points with 13:54 before using a balanced attack in a frenzied 71-68 come-from-behind triumph. Not much came easy at the national tournament. It took a monster effort from Beck (26 points and 10 rebounds) to get past Trinity Christian, 74-69, in the first round. Wernke also swatted nine shots in that contest in exerting his will upon the Trolls.
Jisa can essentially replay these moments in his head while pulling from his photographic memory. For one week in Branson, Jisa and his teammates felt like rock stars. They were cool under pressure because they almost always found a way to win. Jisa himself delivered a magic moment when he sank an acrobatic game-winning buzzer beater to topple Nebraska Wesleyan in February of that season. Said Jisa of that penchant for rising up in the clutch, “That was the pinnacle of everything. It epitomized who we were. We were a bunch of junkyard dogs that would fight and scrap to the very end.”
In the second round of the national tournament, the Bulldogs matched up with an athletic Flagler team that pestered them into committing 26 turnovers. However, Concordia made up for it with a 44-29 advantage on the boards. Ziegler (20 points, 10 rebounds) recorded a double-double and Jisa added 19 points, six rebounds and three steals. Chalk up a 70-63 victory to advance the Bulldogs to the aforementioned battle with Cornerstone.
Then in the national semifinals, Jisa turned in a double-double (18 points, 12 rebounds) as Concordia got past Cedarville, 62-56, to reach the national title game for the first time ever. Jisa was able to get the best of Cedarville star Mugabe Thomas in a key one-on-one matchup. The dream lived on and Walsh awaited in the championship game on March 15, 2005.
The game was broadcast live on College Sports TV. In the lead-up to the game, the color commentator described Beck as “a winner” and Ziegler as “being strong with his hands.” Just before tipoff, the camera cut to Schmidt, who could barely hide a grin on his face. The camera seemed to catch Schmidt at a moment in which he was simply attempting to soak it all in.
Unfortunately, the Cavaliers of North Canton, Ohio, trumped the Bulldogs, 81-70, behind eventual NBA draft pick Robert Whaley. An 18-4 run to begin the second half proved to be crushing for Concordia, which fought back within 69-60 before settling as the national runner up. Commented Schmidt, “It took a 6-8, 310-pound NBA draft choice to beat this team. That was the special nature of what we had.”
“When you look back at it, it’s pretty remarkable what we did that year,” Ziegler said. “We had played plenty of guys who had pretty good athletic talent, but probably nothing quite like (Whaley). I thought our game plan was good on him.”
Ziegler marveled at how the different pieces fell into place, considering all of the unique dynamics that came together. Jisa had walked on to the Nebraska football team and even suited up for the 2002 Rose Bowl, which served as the BCS National Championship Game that season. Admitted Jisa, “Going from Nebraska to here, I didn’t know what to expect. For me it seemed like a step down at the time just because of where I was at. People talked about me being a quitter so I had something to prove. I put a lot of energy into it.”
Seems unlikely that any of the players or coaches involved would want to trade these memories for some other experience at some other school. They even talk about the PE Gym with fondness. It was dark, cramped and below the standard of some high school facilities, but opponents hated playing there. The 2004-05 team lost only one game on that court.
That word “lose” is something this squad deleted from its vocabulary. It was the type of group that embodied what current Concordia teams strive to be: gritty, tough and all about the team. They were junkyard dogs. When Ben Limback’s Bulldogs made their 2020 run to a GPAC tournament championship, alums like Jisa took pride. Memories of 2005 flooded to the surface.
The flashbacks will always be there for Schmidt, who guided the program to nine national tournaments, including two national semifinal advancements and 11 total national tournament wins.
“They were the guys that did not accept or know how to lose. We were not the prettiest team in terms of being fundamentally sound,” Schmidt explained. “Our point guard was one of the leading rebounders in Concordia history in Scott Beck. He played a very physical style. You had a sophomore in Jon Ziegler whose career all of a sudden blossomed and it became clear that he was going to be something special. You had Jason Jisa who was orchestrating all of this on the floor. He demanded complete effort out of everybody and he did not accept losing or excuses.”
When they strapped on their shoes, they didn’t lose.
· Jon Ziegler actually started his college career as a receiver for the Concordia University, Wisconsin football team. He wound up becoming CUNE’s all-time leading scorer with 2,099 career points. His 47 points versus Sioux Falls as a senior remain the program standard for most points in a single game.
· A number of players on the 2004-05 squad were also contributors to the 2002-03 team that won a GPAC tournament title and reached the quarterfinals at the national tournament. Scott Beck and Jason Jisa in particular were key players on that squad, which also featured Rick Dietze and Drew Olson in starring roles.
· Grant Schmidt led the program to each of its first nine appearances at the national tournament. The very first appearance came in 1991 when the NAIA was just one division for basketball. Schmidt coached current Bulldog head coach Ben Limback, who played on national tournament teams three-straight years from 1996 through 1998. Limback guided Concordia back to the national tournament as head coach in 2020.
· Marcus Wernke continues to own NAIA Division II national tournament records for blocked shots in a single game (nine) and most blocked shots in a single national tournament (23). Wernke blocked 109 shots on the year in 2004-05.
· Five different Bulldogs averaged at least 8.5 points per game in 2004-05: Ziegler (15.2), Jisa (13.9), Beck (13.4), Wes Gehring (9.1) and Ben Buhr (8.5). Beck contributed in all areas. He paced the team in rebounds (8.2), assists (5.71) and steals (2.0).
· Concordia never did get a chance for a rematch with Northwestern. The Red Raiders (GPAC regular-season champs) were upset in the GPAC and national tournaments after rising to the No. 1 national ranking. Northwestern was beaten by Sioux Falls in the GPAC semifinals and fell at the hands of Walsh in the national quarterfinals.