By Austin Lawton
Sports Capital Journalism Program, IUPUI
INDIANAPOLIS — Cleveland State waited 12 years to appear in another Horizon League Championship final game, only to come up seven points short. Confronted with an 18-point deficit against the top-seeded IUPUI Jaguars, the Vikings came within two points three times – the last with just 2:06 to play, in a 61-54 defeat.
A four-point play by IUPUI’s Destiny Perkins with 1:34 to go held off the Cleveland State comeback. Spurred on by the 14-point performance, of sophomore Destiny Leo, on 6-of-15 shooting, the Vikings fought to keep up with the Jags. Junior guard Gabriella Smith also contributed 14 points, on 5-of-8 shooting.
“Just incredibly proud of everybody associated with Cleveland State, top down,” Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We do things the right way, first class, and our players showed that down the stretch. It was not the start that we wanted and certainly we did not relax and settle in, and play like we did yesterday. I think we kinda fought the game and really got sped up at times, had a lot of costly turnovers that really hurt us.”
Cleveland State graduates four seniors this season and their mark will be left on the program for years to come. Second leading team scorer, Nadia Dumas, with an 11.8-point average, and Barbara Zieniewska, who is second in team 3-point percentage with 30.6%, will be among those graduating.
“Every player that has played here since our staff has got here, has left us with a strong mark,” Kielsmeier said. “My first year here we went 10-20 and really honestly, that was a really good year, record-wise for us. I don’t know that we could’ve been much better than that, which is where the state of the program was at, at the time. Those players that were a part of that 10-20 stuck around and really went to work on building this program, and some of them are in that locker room right now, there’s a handful that have been with me for four years. Their mark, to me, is going to go down as one of the most successful senior classes in the history of the school,” Kielsmeier said.
The Vikings advanced at least as far as a conference semifinal for a third consecutive season. “That’s really, really difficult stuff to do,” the coach said, “and that group was a part of it from day one, along with our former alumni. We just weren’t ready for the moment yet and I’m steadfast in believing we’re going to be saying the same thing in a year or two.”
Returning to the visitor’s bench in Indiana Farmers Coliseum completed a very emotional circle for Kielsmeier. After testing positive for COVID-19 soon after a semifinal loss two years ago, and fighting for his life, just simply making the final and being alive, is something Kielsmeier cherishes.
“I mean, no, I relive it,” he said on Monday. “You lay in a hospital bed, fighting for your life. The past two years have been really difficult. The support system I have in my life, my parents sitting in the back there, you never know when someone else needs a phone call or a text, or a pick-me-up, I’ve tried to live by example of that knowing how much people reached out to me with the struggles I’ve been through,” Kielsmeier said.
“Being up here is awesome because it’s the whole goal for everything that we do as a program, but it’s the same hotel, the same gym, the same everything. So yes, those thoughts are in my head and I have to process that. I have to make sure that I come out and stay focused and do what I need to do because a lot of people depend on our coaching staff. It’s a challenge, it’s a big challenge. You love the opportunities and you just gotta love life. Sometimes we let things that really shouldn’t bother us, think that it’s too much of a struggle, it’s not that much of a struggle. Smile and love life, and I try to do that.”