By Ken McDowell
In its 22 year history, the Bank of Colorado Event Center has many times witnessed the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.
From gut-wrenching losses to net-cutting victories, men's and women's basketball teams as well as volleyball squads have all inked their places in history in the majestical facility.
It is a building that NJCAA Hall of Fame Coach Lowell Roumph coached in for five years from 1998-2002 and a facility that the late great Roy Edwards never did but would be proud of.
From the heart-wrenching three-pointer by Bastita Heywood of Northeast Nebraska that sank the Plainsmen 74-72 in the semi-finals of the Region IX Tournament in 2001, to the heart-stopping trey by Odessa Lear in 2014 that sent NJC to a 119-110 overtime win over Gillette, Wyo. for the title, the Bank of Colorado Event Center has provided area fans with some of the best basketball in the nation.
The Plainswomen basketball team also won a Region IX Tourney title in the Event Center, defeating Casper, Wyo. 65-61 in 2002.
Just last fall the Plainswomen volleyball team won the Region IX Tournament title on their home court for the first time. Wrestling returned to NJC in 2016 and is currently writing its chapters of history in that facility.
The Plainsmen have cut the nets down twice in the Jackson/Edwards Arena, once in 2005 and the other time in 2014. They were shooting for their third celebration in that treasured facility Saturday, but an old friend got in the way.
Steve Soza, who was NJC Coach Eddie Trenkle's assistant coach for 10 years, took over as the head mentor at Western Wyoming two years ago. The pair coached NJC to the 2014 Region IX Tourney title in the Bank of Colorado Event Center. Bronson Moton, Eddie's current assistant, was a sophomore on that 2014 title team and played a huge part in helping NJC claim the title.
After Steve left for Western Wyoming, Trenkle and Soza vowed not to schedule each other's team during the regular season. But since Western Wyoming is in the Region IX North and NJC resides in the Region IX South, the odds were pretty good the two would eventually meet in the Region IX Tournament at some point.
They did in the Region IX championship game Saturday with NJC the number one seed in the South and Western the number one seed out of the North.
NJC was playing outstanding basketball, losing only twice since the holiday break. Soza had his Mustangs on a roll going into the contest and the two teams were destined to meet on a collision course Saturday for the Region IX Tournament title and the right to advance to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
Not only are the coaches good friends with the highest respect for each other, but several players on both teams played against each other in high school or in league basketball.
It was a perfect storm for area NJC fans to be sad for their team in a loss, but genuinely happy for the opposing team in victory, or vice versa.
As it turned out, it was Steve who cut down the net as Western pulled away to defeat NJC 82-66 to end the season for the Plainsmen with a 24-8 mark.
Steve also inked his name in NJC history as the only coach to win two Region IX Tourney titles with two different teams in the Bank of Colorado Event Center.
Cory Fehringer, head coach of Western Nebraska Community College, was a key member of the 2005 NJC Men's Region IX Tourney title squad as a player. Cory coached WNCC to the title just two years ago.
NJC defeated Western Nebraska 94-84 in Friday's semi-final contest to advance to the title game against Western Wyoming.
Steve's current assistant coach at Western Wyoming, Kameron Pearce, was a member of the NJC teams from 2010-13 who played for Trenkle and Soza.
Trenkle also had his name etched in NJC history before he took over as head coach in 2006-07. He is only one of a handful of players in NJC men's basketball history to not have played in the old Jackson Hall, or the Bank of Colorado Event Center.
The only year Eddie played for the Plainsmen was in 1997-98 when NJC played its volleyball and basketball games at Sterling High School while the new facility was being built in nearly the same spot Jackson Hall once stood.
Soza spent 10 years of his basketball life at NJC and admitted the Bank of Colorado Event Center holds a very special place in his heart.
"This arena is one of the most special buildings to me," he said. "My friendship with Coach Trenkle and Coach Roumph and their families and everything I've been through personally in my life means the world to me to come back.
"Even though we won it still hurts like hell because my brothers here are hurting right now and I have nothing but love, admiration and respect for Coach Trenkle.
"He works his tail off as hard as anyone in the nation. It's bittersweet right now. I'm upset, and I'm happy but I hurt for those guys."
The game had many twists and turns with NJC holding a 38-35 halftime lead. With 12:49 left in the second half, Western built a 58-49 lead just to see the Plainsmen go on a 13-2 run to take a 62-60 advantage with 9:50 left with the help of some big defensive stops.
But Trevor Trust of Western Wyoming hit a couple of huge three-pointers and the Mustangs made the plays and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to clinch the title.
"We played really well defensively in the first half, and that's why we had the lead going into halftime," Trenkle said. "But we never did get on track offensively in the first half.
"I really thought if we could have hit some of our shots that we normally make we could have had a bigger lead at halftime, and it could have been a different game.
"We had a flat spell of about five minutes where we couldn't get anything to fall, and sometimes that affects your defense too.
"But give credit to Steve and his team. They played really well like they have all year and we were the team that had the five-minute struggle."
After falling behind by nine in the second half, it looked like NJC grabbed the momentum at the right time with its 13-2 run to take a short-lived 62-60 lead before the Mustangs took over for good.
"We changed some things and started pounding the ball inside," Trenkle said. "But sometimes players want to go away from that because they think the game is close and they can start shooting from outside again.
"I feel next year our team may be better understanding those kind of situations and we will do better. The sophomores this year did a great job getting this program back together and I can't say enough about them. It's a credit to all of those guys with the way they represented our program."
The 2019-20 season was a big turn around for the Plainsmen after going 14-18 the previous year - much like the 2014 Region IX title team that was 12-21 in 2012-13 before taking the title in 2014 and finishing with a 31-4 mark.
This year's NJC squad also captured the Region IX South Division title with an 11-1 mark.
"The kids from last year chose to stay and came back this year and finished even stronger," Trenkle said. "We didn't quite get where we wanted, but hopefully next year we will add a couple of more pieces that will help us even more and give us a chance to do even better."
Retuning next year with the hopes of taking NJC a step farther are Quincey Jewitt, Dalton Knecht, Deshiloh Stanley, Cyler Johnson, Jared Adams, Rashon Barron, Ryan Ongala, Josh Coats and Colton Shalla.
Trenkle admitted it was a different experience coaching against Soza in the championship game after both coaches worked together for 10 years.
"At times I have coached against my brothers and it's a no-win situation," Trenkle said. "It's hard to be happy when you win and know that someone close to you is hurting, and it's hard for you to be happy for them when you're hurting.
"We knew that when Steve took that job we would eventually go against each other, at least in the tournament. We tried not to go against each other during the regular season games so that we didn't have to deal with this kind of feelings.
"But obviously it was hard. You almost feel guilty when you score or get a defensive stop. It was a good game and we promised a good game and it was. The crowd kept us into the game and you can't say enough about the community that came out and supported us. It was a great crowd and Steve did a great job and it was a fun game to compete in."
Soza admitted it was a surreal expense sitting on the other bench coaching against Trenkle, Moton and the program he was once a part of.
"I'm not going to lie - it hurt sitting on the other bench," he said. "I had never done it before coming into this tournament and it was weird.
"It was so surreal seeing so many people I knew and shaking hands with them and hugging and kissing them. There are so many good memories and so many good people here."
Soza will be going back to the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson as a head coach. His last trip was in 2014 as the assistant coach for the NJC when the Plainsmen lost in the opening round to Trinity Valley, Texas Community College 88-85.
Soza said that experience will help get him ready for this year's trip to the Nationals.
"What Coach Trenkle taught me the most was to enjoy it, embrace and love every aspect of it," he said.
"It's a special moment. I told our kids at the beginning of the year we won't be on ESPN or in the USA Today, but it's going to be in your hearts and minds forever, and that's more important."
The NJCAA National Tournament will be held March 16-21 and Western Wyoming is the 13th-seed in the 24-team bracket.
Soza was recently selected Region IX Coach of the Year honors.
Though still stinging from the loss, Trenkle has great pride knowing he is part of the legacy of NJC men's basketball.
"I sit here a lot looking at the banners and proud I've been a part of it a little bit," he said. "After I played here I stayed really close to Coach Roumph and he was able to help me get the coaching job and told me I was the guy to get us to the next level. Knowing someone like him believes in you it makes it easier to become a coach."
Seeing all of the familiar faces return to the Bank of Colorado Event Center was also a time of pride for Coach Trenkle.
"The championship game was loaded with NJC people as was the semi-final game and the NJC community can be proud of that," he said. "Cory (Fehringer) is a home-grown Sterling NJC standout and Steve is a former coach, Kameron is a former player and Bronson is with us.
"It was also fun to see a lot of former players who Steve and I both coached here to cheer us both on. That was awesome to be part of, and I know Coach Roumph is up in Heaven smiling down on all of us."
NOTE: Johnson, Ferrin and Knecht were selected to the Region IX All-Tournament Team and Diallo and Bagley received Second Team honors.