YPSILANTI — Coaches Charles Ramsey from the Eastern Michigan University Eagles and Ernie Zeigler from the Central Michigan University Chippewas both inherited basketball programs that were sliding down to the bottom of the Mid-America Conference.
Well, through the cajoling and coaxing of Ramsey and Zeigler recently at EMU’s Convocation Center, the two Detroit area coaches have elevated their respective programs to the point where the are competing for MAC titles.
When EMU and CMU locked horns on that day the stakes had moved beyond just playing for pride, the winner of their final regular season Conference game would win a share of the MAC West Division.
The game was one of the biggest in recent years for both teams because the winner received a first round bye in the MAC Tournament. The tension in the air before the start of the contest was so dense one could cut it with a knife.
“We have to win the battle of the boards,” Zeigler said prior to the start of the game. “We have to handle their energy because they will be ready to play on their senior day.”
Concurred Ramsey: “I know this game will be physical and hard fought, because there is a lot at stake for both teams.”
Both coaches’ prognostications were right on as the game was fought on the boards and it was very physical. In fact, Eastern held a three-point lead with under two minutes to play, but the Chippewas fought back and won a nail-biter 56-55. With the win CMU sweep the season series versus EMU for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
“Wow!” Zeigler enthused after the game. “We have had our ups and downs this season. We started out great then fell off. But this team has bounced back and won it second consecutive MAC West title. Eastern did not give it to us; we had to grind it out ’til the very end.”
Said a dejected Ramsey: “This was our goal to get to this point, but I can’t enjoy that right now. We made a couple mistakes at the end and had a few bad breaks, and, just like that, the game slipped out our hands.”
Ramsey and the Eagles have come a long way in five years from that 7-21 first season. Former Murray Wright star and EMU’s second leading scorer, senior Carlos Medlock, said Coach has toughened everyone’s attitude and resolve.
“We lost and it hurt,” said Murray, who tossed in 27 points versus CMU. “But Coach already has us ready for the next game. We all feed off him and each other. One thing he had us do was bond as people on and off the court and that has been positive.”
It showed Sunday as Eastern implemented a dramatic second-half comeback in a 65-59 first round victory over Northern Illinois University in the MAC Tournament.
EMU (17-14) has earned a shot at No. 3 seed Akron at 2 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals in Cleveland, Ohio.
Zeigler has led the Chippewas (15-14) to their first back-to-back division titles since the league shifted to divisions in 1997-98. The 15 wins are the most since the 2002-03 MAC Championship campaign. His team will play Western Michigan in a quarterfinal match Thursday, also in Cleveland.
“We are going to enjoy the win over Eastern, but we understand there is some unfinished business,” Zeigler said. “We have our sights set on Cleveland and hopefully we can build on this win.”
No matter how Zeigler and Ramsey’s teams finish, both have their programs on track on the court and in the classroom.
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.