After two rebuilding seasons under the direction of head coach Matt Bowen, the Bemidji State men's basketball team emerged from the shadows of the Northern Sun this winter and turned into a competitive squad.
Without the foundation laid by the players like seniors James Gibson and Gunther Zajic, the program would not be in the position it is right now.
"The greatest contribution James and Gunther have given is consistency," Bowen said. "They are what BSU student athletes should be about in the classroom and the community. They represent everything a coach could want in hard work, consistency and dedication."
Bemidji State (8-18 overall, 6-13 NSIC) concludes the regular season against Wayne State (10-16 overall, 6-13 NSIC) today at 8 p.m. at BSU Gymnasium and though the Beavers will not advance to the postseason, this season can be viewed as another step forward in establishing a competitive program.
The previous steps included back-to-back 20-loss seasons prior to this season and the stability provided by Gibson and Zajic during those challenging years has been a valuable asset to Bemidji State.
Both have interesting stories that have converged in Bemidji with Gibson a native of Miami, Florida and Zajic a native of Linz, Austria.
"I came here because I wanted to have the opportunity to play basketball and not keep bouncing around all the time," Gibson said. "This has really been fun here and I have no regrets even though we have gone through some tough years. It's a process and it's been fun grow as a team, family and a better person."
Gibson will graduate this spring with a degree in sports management and he's hoping to find a career as a business professional.
Zajic grew up in Austria and was introduced to basketball through his cousin and learned the game through former Washington Bullets player Jimmy Blake.
He came to Bemidji State as a transfer student two years ago with experience playing at Little Falls High School as an international transfer student and at Central Lakes Community College.
"I really wanted to play at the Division II level," Zajic said. "I knew that if I stayed at the Division III level I would see more playing time. But I knew if I could come here I would be able to improve as a player through practices and the much higher level of play."
Zajic, who is one of only six Austrians in America playing collegiate basketball, will graduate with a degree in business administration and he plans to return to Europe and play professional basketball in Austria.
Because of his playing experience in America, Zajic will be valuable when he returns to Austria as the Austrian league limits the amount of foreign players that can play on each team.
Zajic is hoping to play in Vienna, but has not ruled out playing in Germany.
Family is also on Zajic's mind as his collegiate career draws to a close.
"I've missed a lot of things since I've been here, my brother has had two kids since I've been gone so I'm excited to see my family. I've been able to come here and achieve my dreams," Zajic said. "When I was starting in Austria I had people say I was never going to make it if I came here- that I wouldn't have a chance. I've improved so much since coming to America."
Before the season began, the Beavers' goal was to be one of the top eight NSIC teams that reach conference playoffs at the end of the season.
This season has provided some memorable moments which included a four-game winning streak. During that winning streak the Beavers beat then No. 24 St. Cloud State at home and No. 11 Northern State on the road in double overtime.
On Wednesday, the Beavers lost to Minnesota-Duluth 126-124 in a four-overtime thriller. Despite the loss in the longest game in the 86-year history of the program, the campus was buzzing with the game.
Even BSU men's hockey coach Tom Serratore stopped by the practice Thursday to talk basketball with Bowen and some of the players.
"You know it was a fun game for me, but I'm still disappointed we lost that one," Gibson said.
Zajic confessed he didn't get much sleep after the game on Wednesday night.
"It was really exciting to be a part of that game, but you never want to be on the losing end of something like that," Zajic said.
Bemidji State was in the playoff hunt until last weekend. Depending on the results of tonight's game, the Beavers could finish either in ninth, 10th or 11th place.
"We wanted to be more competitive this year after two years of not being in games or being out of games by halftime. We've accomplished that. That's why this year has been fun," Gibson said. "We set higher goals for ourselves and I'm sad we couldn't achieve playoffs or double digit wins, but it's been a good year and we want to go out a winning note."
Regardless of what happens tonight, Gibson knows the Beavers can make even more steps forward next season.
"This program is going in the right direction with all of the core guys we have here and the coaching staff," he said. "We were competitive this year and we're only going to get better. A lot of it is just mental and I think you'll see an even bigger turnaround next year."