FINDLAY - Bright, radiant orange are those rows of bleachers in Croy Gymnasium on the University of Findlay campus. Men in orange cardigans occupy some of the seats, flanked by students in orange hoodies, and young moms in orange sweater vests.
There's more orange here than you'll see on the opening day of deer season, and for a very good reason.
This place has an energy all its own, and the Oilers men's basketball team has used that power source to run off 51 consecutive wins in Croy - the longest home winning streak in the nation.
"The place does have a lot of energy, but it's not really the building itself. I think it's the people and what they stand for," Denny Schrier said.
Schrier, a retired teacher in the Findlay school system and a 1970 graduate of what was then Findlay College, has missed just a couple of those wins in a streak that began three years ago.
"It starts with coaching, since there has always been a big emphasis here on winning at home," Schrier said. "And the players share that philosophy and believe in it, and they get a lot of confidence from all the success they've had playing here. And, finally, it's the fans - the community - because they pack this place every night and make it really hard for someone else to come in here and win."
Findlay, ranked fifth in the country in Division II, has won a school record 19 straight games overall, and takes a 20-1 mark into tonight's home game against Notre Dame College of Cleveland. The Oilers are 13-0 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and have claimed a sixth consecutive GLIAC South title, and own a sixth straight season of 20 or more wins.
"This program has had a lot of success over the years, and I think the guys who are playing now are happy to be continuing that," senior Frank Phillips said. "We don't dwell on the winning streak, but I think we do come out on this floor confident and comfortable. The place just gives you a real good feel as a player."
Croy has the intimacy of a high school gymnasium rather than the cavernous feel of larger college arenas. With three rows of bleachers tucked against the wall under each basket, the fans are literally breathing down the necks of opposing players as they inbound the ball.
"When the game gets tighter, our fans get into it more and the place kind of fills up with noise and energy," Phillips said. "We feed off of that kind of momentum."
At Croy, 2,200 is a full house, and those who can't make it inside get a highly-charged and frenetic blow-by-blow account from radio play-by-play announcer Jim Heller, who is perched on the second level above the court, with an end zone view of the action.
Down on the floor, Findlay has benefited from unprecedented consistency in its leadership. Ron Niekamp has coached the Oilers since the 1985-86 season, compiling a 477-168 record as he works his 22nd season. Niekamp was preceded by legendary coach Jim Houdeshell, who won 430 games from 1955-85. Houdeshell followed Don Renninger, who had 123 wins from 1947-55.
"How many places can claim that? Only three coaches in 60 years," Schrier said. "I'm not sure how many wins that translates to, but that kind of stability has to be worth a lot."
Niekamp, who has taken the Oilers to 21 straight winning seasons, said his team's success on its home court has come about almost as a sub-plot as Findlay has worked toward other accomplishments.
"The home winning streak is nice, but when we lay out our team goals and discuss the kinds of things we'd like to accomplish, we don't really talk about that," Niekamp said.
"We want to win our division, and hopefully position ourselves well for the conference tournament, and the NCAA regional. If we do the things we need to do, we feel like the home winning streak will take care of itself."
Findlay senior Brent Schnipke said he has seen the impact that Croy can have on visiting teams.
"With our students and fans so close to the floor, they can get on the other team a little, and that can make this a pretty uncomfortable place for teams to come play," Schnipke said. "It can be an intimidating experience."
Niekamp said that in the GLIAC, winning at home is mandatory, if the Oilers want to continue to be among the elite teams in the conference, and nationally.
"In this league, everyone is very good at home. So what separates a team from the rest of the pack is finding a way to win on the road," he said. "You have to win at home to have any chance at the championship, and we have been fortunate to play well and have success at home, and on the road."
Niekamp said the Croy environment is conducive to creating surges of momentum for the Oilers.
"When you have the fans so close to the floor, that is huge," Niekamp said.
"The energy they create is significant, and they know they can have an impact on the game. They can have an impact on how hard the home guys play. Attendance, enthusiasm, and atmosphere - those elements all work together to create your home court advantage. They all contribute to a win, if you have good players. It takes good players to get the whole thing started."
Phillips, who is in his fifth year at Findlay after sitting out the 2004-05 season with an injury, was here when the Oilers last lost a game at Croy.
"I remember that last loss at home," Phillips said, "but each time we win, it pushes it further and further back in my mind. As players, we don't talk about the streak much, but we might mention it right before the game as one more motivation to go out and play well. The way we look at it, our streak belongs just as much to our fans as it does to us."
Niekamp said that the streak will be part of the legacy of men's basketball at Findlay, which is now in its 100th season.
"I think the streak has become our little niche in Findlay basketball," Niekamp said. "A streak of that length is extraordinary, it's unique, and it's the kind of thing that does not happen a lot. It's fun for our fans, and fun for our players, and I think it gives our guys a little more incentive."
Contact Matt Markey at: