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  • Writer's pictureAdam Glatczak

How Spencer Piercefield Became Indispensable And More At IWU

When a program has averaged better than 28 wins per season for a stretch of nearly 20 years, sometimes it takes players stepping up when perhaps not expected, at least by those on the outside. Sometimes it takes a Spencer Piercefield. Despite having to fill some considerable holes including one gigantic one, the beat went on at Indiana Wesleyan this past year, as the Wildcats continued to be one of the most consistent winners in not just the NAIA but all of college basketball. Indeed, it was Piercefield, a guard who just completed his junior season, who was one of the reasons a special program on and off the court continued to excel. Piercefield was one of the breakout players of the 2021-22 season in the NAIA. Primarily a three-point shooter off the bench his first two seasons who averaged 6.6 points per game as a sophomore, he more than doubled his production to become one of the Wildcats’ most indispensable players. His play led to a first team All Crossroads League selection and being named an honorable mention NAIA All-American by College Basketball Times.

Photos: Indiana Wesleyan U. Sports Information

Piercefield’s rise was key in Indiana Wesleyan remaining among the premier programs in the NAIA. By many accounts, the Wildcats were expected to at least be in something of a reloading situation, if not a full rebuild last year. That’s what happens when a team loses not just one of the most decorated players in the rich history of NAIA basketball, but two other starters from a team that was ranked No. 1 for most of the 2020-21 season. Kyle Mangas was a four-time first team NAIA All-American and a two-time NAIA national player of the year. He led the Wildcats to an NAIA Division II national title as a freshman and was part of teams that won 120 games over four years. As a senior he averaged nearly 30 points per game, pacing a dominant team that outscored opponents by more than 21 points per game and was the top seed and odds-on favorite to win the national title before a stunning loss in the NAIA Tournament round of 16. If there was any doubt of Indiana Wesleyan’s staying power at the top of the NAIA, though, it was erased this past year. The Wildcats finished 28-7 overall, won the tough Crossroads League regular season title, and advanced to the NAIA tourney’s final 16 again, the ninth straight year they have advanced at least that far in the postseason. The reason is a distinct program identity curated by head coach Greg Tonagel, as well as players like Piercefield. Tonagel’s coaching philosophy is summed up in the mission at the top of his bio: “To raise a generation of men who will trade the pursuit of ‘me’ for the pursuit of ‘three.’” The credo you’ll see all around the IWU program is IAM3, with the focus is on putting God first and others second for the better of the team.

Tonagel took over the IWU program just two years after finishing a solid career at Valparaiso, and has been wildly successful, winning 478 games in 17 seasons including a pair of NAIA Division II national titles. “It’s a lot of fun,” said Piercefield. “It’s a basketball program but we’re all together pursuing something bigger than basketball. Coaches, players, we’re obviously trying to win games and be a successful program, but at end of day we’re pursuing something bigger than ourselves. We have such close relationships on our team, those are all my brothers, and they’re guys I can rely on...I truly love the guys I’m with, and they’re guys I’ll be friends with the rest of my life. “And then just the way being in this program has prepared me for life after college is really unique. I’ve grown so much, as a basketball player but just as a person in general. The transformation I’ve had from my freshman year to now, it’s just been awesome. The coaches do a great job of pushing us to grow, they don’t care where we are, but care where we’re going. They like to have a growth mindset, focus on where people are at, and want us willing to grow and take the next step.”

There are few better ways to describe Piercefield’s play last year than ‘growth.’ With Mangas and a strong veteran cast in front of him his first two seasons, his offensive role was quite clear as a reserve off the bench, albeit a valuable one who averaged better than 20 minutes per game both years. Piercefield’s offensive production increased to 13.8 points per game, including nearly 16 points per game over the team’s final 22 games. He also proved much more versatile than the statistics of his first two seasons showed, when more than 80% of his shot attempts came from three-point range. Piercefield was still excellent from three-point range - 70 triples made at a 39.3% rate - but also attempted nearly as many two-point shots as threes and shot 47.4% overall, plus made 67 of 82 free throw attempts (81.7%). He also added 4.8 assists and 3.6 rebounds per contest, and rarely came off the court leading the team averaging 34.4 minutes a game. “I think a big thing is just the confidence and trust the coaches have in me,” he said of his improvement. “They’ve given me a ton of freedom to just do a lot of things in the offense. I have the ball in my hands a lot, but I don’t think I take the step forward that I did if my teammates weren’t speaking confidence and truth and trust in me. Having conversations, hearing how much they trust me, guys on the team telling me they want me taking big shots, it really does make a difference. “And then another thing is preparation. You can have a role, but it doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. Just how I am, I’ve always loved preparation, working out, working on my game. It’s years of hard work, getting in the gym, sacrificing, has allowed me to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity I was given this year.” “It was really the first time with us that the ball was put in his hands, and he was given complete freedom to make plays,” said Tonagel. “It wasn’t by design at first, we had a guard not come back to school, another guard tore his ACL after one game. “We looked around, we had Spencer at point guard, and then a lot of power forwards. Spencer has been a kid who is just a worker, and when hard work and preparation meet, that’s an opportunity, and he responded and sure made the most of it last year.” Among the areas where he felt he especially improved, Piercefield notes: “The two that really stick out, is just my playmaking, and then obviously scoring, but kind of in different ways. My freshman year, and most of last year, I was just a standstill catch-and-shoot guy. Especially my freshman year, I rarely ever dribbled the ball, just stayed in corner, we had such great playmakers…my job was just to create space and be ready to shoot. “From that to this year, was kind of a complete change. I had the ball in my hands a lot, coming off ball screens. A big part of my role was playmaking, getting guys involved, I think that showed up in my assist numbers, getting the ball to (teammates) in good spots to score, and that’s something I enjoy. “And then obviously I took a big step in scoring as well…but again, my first two years the only way I was scoring was if I made threes. This year I got in the paint more, was able to rely on my floater when I got deep in paint. I probably took more threes off dribble than catch-and-shoot, when combined in the first two years I probably took only a couple off the dribble. How I got my shots was different, and being able to score in a variety of different ways.”

The uniqueness of the Indiana Wesleyan program is also illustrated in the interests of a player like Piercefield. He is majoring in youth ministries and pastoral ministries at IWU, and when he finishes his basketball career his goal is to become a youth pastor. An excellent student with a 3.78 grade point average, he was named a CoSIDA NAIA Academic All-District selection this year. “My major is youth ministry, so I kind of felt the call to go into ministry when going into my junior year of high school. And a big reason why I decided to go into ministry was the impact my youth pastor (Matt Pineda at Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Ind.) had on me in high school. He had a big impact on me, helped me understand what my faith was, helped me grow in my faith. “Youth ministry is where I want to be. Those high school years, two things happen, you either decide to walk away from your faith, follow the world, or decide to go all in, surrender your life to God. You can have a big impact (on youth) in those high school years, and I just want to be able to help kids on their faith journey, just impact them like my pastor did for me.” “He embodies our [I Am Third] philosophy,” said Tonagel. “He loves God and he loves people. We’re proud of him and the way he carries himself now and what he wants to do with his life. We’ve got a lot of guys like that, and they’re fun to coach, fun to watch.” Indiana Wesleyan is poised for another terrific year in 2022-23, with Piercefield joining All-American 7-foot center Seth Maxwell among three starters slated to be back plus a former starter (Noah Smith) returning from an injury that cost him all but one game this past year. “I think just more of what we saw, we put the ball in his hands, put him into action, lot of ball screen with Seth (Maxwell),” said Tonagel. “He always made the right decision, when needed to shoot, he’d shoot, when needed to pass he’d pass. “I think he’s only going to improve. He did everything for us - break the press, run the offense, guard the opponent’s best player…I think his efficiency will only improve.”

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