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Published: Thursday, 1/26/2006

Oilers strike it rich with Niekamp

FINDLAY - Big Ben has this town buzzin'.

But before he was grabbing most of the headlines, Ron Niekamp was quietly building a dazzling basketball program at the University of Findlay.

The Oilers have been slick.

The program hasn't slipped one bit since making the leap from NAIA to NCAA Division II six years ago.

This is Niekamp's 21st season as Findlay's coach.

He has an eye-popping 449-164 overall record, good for a .733 winning percentage. His Oilers have been even better at home, compiling a 256-45 mark and an .851 winning percentage.

Findlay is currently 17-2, riding a 13-game winning streak, ranked No. 9 in Division II, and leading the South Division of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The Oilers' 34-game home winning streak is the longest in the nation, and they have virtually clinched their 15th 20-win season under Niekamp.

"I was a little uncertain of what to expect this year, so what we're doing now is a little bit of a surprise," he said.

That's because Findlay was coming off its best season ever.

The Oilers won a school-record 30 games last year, captured GLIAC division and tournament titles and were ranked No. 1 in Division II at the end of the regular season. They advanced to the Elite Eight in the national tournament for the first time in school history.

Oh, yeah, the 56-year-old Niekamp also became the winningest coach in school history, passing James Houdeshell, whom he succeeded in 1985.

"Coach Houdeshell was here 30 years, so we've only had two coaches the last 51 years," Niekamp said, "and I think that has helped give this program some continuity."

Even so, the cupboard looked to be rather bare when the 2005-06 season began.

Four starters were gone, including leading scorer Chris Commons from Central Catholic, who recently was sentenced to three years in prison for a string of robberies committed last summer in Toledo.

But the Oilers didn't backpedal. Instead, they put the pedal to the metal and excelled.

No big surprise, there.

All Niekamp does is win.

He may be a household name here like Marathon Oil, but he has struck it rich when it comes to attracting talented players.

Before joining Division II as a full-time member in the 2000-01 season, Niekamp's teams made six appearances in the NAIA national tournament, and he coached eight All-Americans.

In five-plus seasons at the Division II level, his record is 137-37, a .788 winning percentage.

Niekamp, who posted a 208-86 mark in 13 seasons at Parkway, Ottawa-Glandorf and Lima Senior high schools prior to coming to Findlay, is modest when asked to explain Findlay's success under his direction.

"It's not anything that any one person has done," he said. "It's a period of years where a lot of coaches and players have helped us get to the next level. Because of our success, I think we've made the high school coaches in Ohio much more aware of the kind of program we have."

The Oilers have the inside track on their fifth consecutive South Division title, and they are hoping to secure another berth in the Division II national tournament.

Roethlisberger may be the most recognizable name in Flag City, but at this point, a guy named Niekamp also has a pretty glossy resume.



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