MARSHALL - Twelve games, 12 wins (all blowouts) and they've all come without stepping a foot on the court for a minute of game action.
The Southwest Minnesota State men's basketball team entered Friday night's road tilt against perennial Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference power Winona State 6-6 overall, but its bench, which has dubbed itself the Goon Squad, claims to sport a perfect record.
When it comes to providing energy for the players on the court, the members of the Goon Squad strive to be sideline superstars.
Senior Michael Appel, far left, and the rest of the Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball team’s bench, called the Goon Squad, poses re-enacting their synchronized ritual they perform during SMSU free throws.
"They've been blowouts, absolute blowouts," junior transfer Cole Martin, who is redshirting this season, said of the Goon Squad's dominance over opposing benches. "You look at other benches and they're just sitting there, and we're out there, we're yelling, we're cheering, we're clapping. That's why we're undefeated."
Martin was an all-metro honoree while playing high school ball in Omaha, Neb., and was one of the top players for a Des Moines Area Community College team that made it to a region championship game last year. Like others on the SMSU roster, he's gone from a top dog on a previous team to watching from the sidelines, where his role is to try to pump up his teammates who are out on the court.
It's a difficult transition for some players to make, as frustration can build when playing time doesn't come. Head coach Brad Bigler, who has been part of the SMSU men's program since the late 1990s as a player and coach, said keeping those players engaged is paramount not only for their success, but for the team's success. They're the ones who the rotation players go against in practice in preparation for upcoming games, so the better they are, the better they help make their teammates.
Since the time he was a player, Bigler said the Mustangs have always been able to gain energy from their bench whether in practice or in games, and this year's group is a shining example of that.
"I think these guys do a great job of taking pride in understanding the big picture," head coach Brad Bigler said. "I believe all of them really enjoy being around the team. I think all of them enjoy trying to prepare those other guys to be ready to go on the weekends. Sometimes I think that can really speak highly of your character when you're unselfish enough to understand that your role is significant and they are still a big part of your program."
Senior guard Jordan Buddenhagen is in his fourth year as a Mustang. He sat out the 2009-10 season as a redshirt, then played a total of 14 minutes the following year, and last year he didn't get any playing time. This season his teammates have kicked him off the Goon Squad. Why? Because he's been getting too much playing time. He's been averaging 9.8 minutes and 4.3 points per game.
Even last year when he didn't see the court at all, Buddenhagen said he never really felt frustrated because he realized that he still had an important part to play.
"The way I look at it, I know my role and I know what I need to do," he said. "If I just keep working hard day in and day out, good things will come.
"It's all about being part of a team. I love playing games, but it's all about going on road trips, hanging out with your friends, going places, staying in the hotels... it's just a great overall experience being part of a team. Like last year we were successful and it was just fun being part of the ride, being on that journey, and you always have those lifelong friends."
Buddenhagen and other upperclassmen have taken SMSU's young players, like redshirt freshmen Mitch Weg, Joey Bartlett and Drew Osmundson, under their wings and encourage them to be vocal on the sidelines to help them feel like part of the team. Jumping up and running onto the court to greet their teammates when a timeout is called, joining in on synchronized free-throw rituals and encouraging a rotation player when he's having an off night are duties expected of all members of the bench crew.
The Goon Squad lost a member with Buddenhagen getting too many minutes, but it gained a valuable piece last month when former SMSU quarterback Tyler Peschong came on to give the Mustangs an extra body in practice when some other big men were banged up. Peschong graduated at the end of the fall semester and had a job offer in Iowa, but decided to stay in Marshall and take graduate classes at SMSU when Bigler offered him the chance to stay with the team.
"When I first got the opportunity to practice going into break I thought it was going to be just a short-term thing," said Peschong, a former all-conference basketball player at Marshalltown High School (Iowa), "but when you realize how hard these guys work and what practice is like and how hard these guys who don't get to see the court on Friday's and Saturday's work, I just kind of fell in love with that group and decided it was something I wanted to be a part of."
Bigler said Peschong, whose brother Andrew is SMSU's all-time assists leader, has brought tremendous leadership qualities to the locker room and team practices since joining the squad. His teammates say the same thing.
Senior forward Michael Appel, a fellow Goon Squad member who has seen the court in two games this year, played with Peschong in high school and has relished the chance to play with one of his best friends again.
"It's fun. We've been friends growing up basically our whole life and it's good to be back on the court with him again," Appel said. "He brings energy, talks a little smack out there and gets the guys going, so that's always good. He's probably the best smack talker on the team, I'd say."
Asked if there's a hierarchy within the Goon Squad, Martin said he likes to think he has some clout, but said Peschong is rising fast and has made the group an unstoppable force as it enters the heart of the conference schedule.
"I don't like to take too much credit, but I did create the name," Martin said, "and then Tyler Peschong came in and just gave us an unreal boost of... I don't even know what you want to call it, but he gave us something and we've reached a peak level that's never been touched before from another bench, I can guarantee it."