UMW News BureauUniversity of Montana Western elementary education major and Bulldog basketball forward Kyle Erickson reflects on a stellar season and the team's upcoming appearance at the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo. UMW NEWS BUREAU Kyle Erickson’s last two years of high school athletics did not go very well. The University of Montana Western elementary education major and Broadview, Mont. native hurt his back playing football his junior year of high school and only played a handful of games for the basketball team at the end of the season. The next year, he injured his knee playing football and only played (still injured) in the district and divisional basketball tournament. College basketball recruiters were not knocking at his door. “I wasn’t getting any looks from colleges,” Erickson remembers. Determined to play college ball, he took matters into his own hands. He had heard about Montana Western’s new block scheduling system, in which students take a single class at a time. He was intrigued. He also knew the Keller family, who lived near Broadview in Custer, and he knew Steve Keller was the head men’s basketball coach at Montana Western. “I think he’s the only Keller that left Custer,” Erickson jokes. “I know his whole family, so I called him and he offered me a $500 scholarship. I didn’t have any other offers so I went.” Keller made the offer sight unseen; he had never seen Erickson play.
“We all knew our time was going to come, and we were ready,” Erickson says.Four years later, the 6-foot-4 forward is coming off a remarkable season highlighted by his selection as the NAIA Player of the Week for back-t0-back, scintillating performances on Jan. 13 and 14, 2011. Over two games Erickson averaged 31.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.0 steals. He also shot .741 (20-27) on field goal attempts, .800 (8-10) on three-pointers and .833 (15-18) from the free throw line. Against rival Montana State University-Northern on Jan. 13, Erickson scored a career-high 32 points, had 10 rebounds, seven assists and one steal. He was 10-11 from the field, made his only three-point attempt and went 11-12 from the free throw line. The next night against the University of Great Falls, he scored 31 points, pulled down 14 rebounds, dished two assists and tallied three steals. He was 10-16 from the field, 7-9 from three-point range and 4-6 from the free throw line. “It didn’t sink in, the magnitude of it, for a couple weeks later,” Erickson remembers. “It was just one of those times when the shots were going in. It was fun, I can tell you that. I wish every game was like that.” Those performances would be tough to match every game, but the rest of Erickson’s senior season didn’t go too bad either. He averaged 11.33 points per game, 5.88 boards per game (2.03 offensive and 3.85 defensive), 3.7 assists and was named an all-conference first team player for the 2011-2012 season. “He’s the player every coach wants on their team,” coach Keller says of Erickson. “He takes charges, gets offensive rebounds, plays hard defense, dives on the floor. His style of play is just relentless, playing hard on both ends of the floor at all times. He’s very coachable and he just has a great attitude.” [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="297" caption="Erickson competes against Robert Morris University at the 2011 NAIA national tournamentin Kansas City, Mo. Photo by Brian Beard."][/caption] While the transition from class C basketball to NAIA Division I ball can be daunting for many young athletes, Erickson says it was “strangely very easy.” He came into the program on the junior varsity squad and found himself playing plenty of minutes and averaging a double-double every game. He eventually moved his way onto the varsity bench with Brandon Brown and several others biding their time until they started. “We all knew our time was going to come, and we were ready,” Erickson says. Their time certainly came, and the Bulldogs have once again posted another phenomenal season in the Frontier Conference. Erickson was accompanied on the all-conference first team this season by his teammates Tyler Hurley and Brandon Brown. Brandon Brown was named the Frontier Conference Player of the Year for the second straight year, and the Frontier Conference honored Keller with the coach of the year award. Although they lost in a knock-down, drag-out battle to MSU-Northern in the conference championship game on March 5, the Bulldogs were still named co-champions of the conference and Erickson says the team’s sights are now set on Kansas City, Mo. where they will make their third straight appearance at the NAIA national tournament. The Bulldogs hope to rectify losing in the first round last year, where, as the lowest seeded team in the tournament, they came within one point of stunning top-seeded Robert Morris University in the first round. It was a tough loss and one the team has not soon forgotten. It is especially on the mind of the Bulldogs’ five seniors, who Erickson says are hungry to prove themselves at the end of their college career. “Nobody expected us to get to Kansas City last year,” Erickson explains. “Our goal was to get there last year. This year it was a must, but we’re also going to win some games. We knew we could play with anyone after that game [against Robert Morris]. It definitely made us hungrier. After losing to Northern, it was a horrible feeling. I was like, man, I don’t want to go out on a loss.” Erickson and the Bulldogs return to the Kansas City court to face 13th-ranked John Brown University (Siloam Springs, Ark.) on Thursday, March 15 at 1:15 MST. Regardless of the outcome of the tournament, Erickson says he is confident the team will make a strong showing, due in now small part by his leadership and the leadership of the five other seniors on the team. “The chemistry couldn’t be better,” he explains. “We just know each other so well, which helps us out a lot on the court, knowing each other’s personalities and strengths and weaknesses. We can really back each other up.” While the 2012 NAIA tournament will be his last games as a college athlete, Erickson says he does not plan to leave the game any time soon. He will graduate in spring 2012 and hopes to teach and coach basketball at the junior high level. “I’ll definitely coach to stay involved in the game,” he says. “I’ve been involved in basketball too long to walk away from it.”