WINONA LAKE – Coach Jim Kessler got his wish Friday night.
His Grace College men’s basketball team started the 2014-15 season 1-0.
Everyone else in attendance at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center, except for visiting Concordia University, got their wish too.
That was to see the beloved coach of the Lancers join some very elite company.
Kessler, directing the Lancers on the court named in his honor, won his 700th career game as Grace defeated Concordia 89-71 on the first day of the Crossroads Classic.
The humble and soft-spoken Kessler, now in his 38th season as Grace coach, becomes just the 45th coach in men’s college basketball history to win 700 games.
The most touching tribute Friday night for the big moment came when late in the game three of Kessler’s beautiful granddaughters held up a sign proclaiming 700 behind the Grace bench to honor their grandfather.
Kessler, in his normal selfless manner, tried to downplay the milestone.
“It just means I’m old,” stated Kessler when first asked about the win.
When pressed further, the man who deflects all the credit for his success to others, was reflective.
“It’s an honor,” Kessler said. “It means that I’ve got on the right bus a lot of times with the right people. I think that our kids were pumped tonight and wanted to be part of No. 700 and I appreciate that. I look around and see the guys that came here tonight who played for me and it means a lot.
“I’m thankful that Grace gave me a chance to coach here. I just want to give my best every day. That’s what I ask of our young men. I just want to be faithful. I was called to please my savior Jesus Christ.”
Kessler is now 700-526 in his 38th season at Grace.
The Lancers got a huge lift from super sub Brandon Vanderhegghen to make sure it would be a historic night. The stellar junior guard from Mishawaka pumped in a game-high 18 points in 22 outstanding minutes of action. Vanderhegghen sparked a 12-2 run by Grace that turned a slim seven point lead back into a commanding 17 point edge in the final half. He did it with six quick points on an old-fashioned three-point play and then by draining a triple.
“Brandon brings energy and his motor running,” said Kessler. “He gets it going and can really score.
“We opened the lead up once we attacked. Our goal was to attack and we wanted to get easy scoring opportunities on run outs tonight. We did that.
“I thought our big guys were effective. We shot amazing tonight. We got good looks. I was even more pleased with our free throw shooting (19-25).”
Vanderhegghen, “Mr. Instant Offense”, was 7-10 from the field including 3-5 from 3-point land.
The Lancers used a 17-4 run in the opening half to lead 39-26 at halftime. The bench accounted for a key 18 points in the first half for the hosts with Vanderheggen scoring seven and former Tippecanoe Valley player Chad Hoffer six. Hoffer, a 6-2 freshman guard, gave the Lancers a huge lift with his energy, effort and hustle off the bench.
Grace stretched its lead to 16 points early in the second half before the Cardinals rallied to pull within 59-52 with 9:30 to play.
The smooth scorer lit it up as the hosts pulled away to the convincing win.
Grace, which lost top scorer Greg Miller from last year’s 20-15 team, had plenty of balance. Niko Read scored 16 points, Kyle Fillman 13 and 6-11 senior Dennis Williams, who missed all of last season due to a foot injury, was solid with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Junior Logan Irwin, a Whitko High School product, had eight points and six assists for the Lancers.
The Lancers shot a fine 32-55 from the field, including 6-12 from distance.
Makenzi Kurvits-Statum led Concord with 15 points. The Cardinals were 24-60 from the field, but just 6-25 from deep.
The Crossroads Classic continues Saturday. Concordia will play Mt. Vernon Nazarene at 3:30 p.m. with Grace facing Andrews University at 8 p.m.
Grace will honor Kessler for his 700th win with a ceremony prior to its game Saturday night.