“No one really knows this,” said a jet-lagged Steve DeMeo on Monday afternoon, the NWF State men’s coach operating on just a few hours of sleep after a 17-hour bus ride back from Hutchinson, Kan.
“I haven’t even shared this with my assistants,” his gaze connecting with assistant coach Rory Kuhn.
Normally so self-assured, so poised, it’s rare to see DeMeo expose any vulnerability.
Yet in this moment, the national title trophy resting on a book case behind his desk, DeMeo is finally ready for some catharsis.
He’s ready to close the book on two decades of pent-up frustration.
Less than 40 hours earlier, DeMeo and his players were at the NJCAA tourney cutting down the nets, now proudly draped over the national title hardware. The win erased a 20-year championship drought for the Raiders, whose only other title came in 1995.
Yet NWF State’s celebration was DeMeo’s pain.
While the Raiders were celebrating in 1995, DeMeo was in the Bronx with his top-ranked Monroe team.
The No. 1 Mustangs were 28-3 and cruised to a Region 15 regular-season title, earning DeMeo the region’s Coach of the Year.
Yet they lost in the region tournament, a death sentence before today’s at-large bids and zone qualifiers existed.
“That was a team that should’ve won the national championship,” DeMeo said. “We had enough talent to win the national championship, but we came up short. We played on somebody’s home court against a team that we’d beaten twice by 30.
“Unfortunately, we lost.”
His 53-8 tenure at Monroe immediately earned him an assistant coaching job at Iona, followed by stints at Providence, UCF, Hofstra and Newberry College before replacing Steve Forbes in Niceville in 2013.
Yet the 1995 heartbreaker never escaped DeMeo.
“For 20 years that’s been haunting me,” he said. “No one knows about that because I’ve never talked about it.
“Basically three or four times a week I said to myself for the last 20 years, ‘I’m gonna win a national championship.’ I’m gonna win a national championship.
“And I did. No, we did. We did.”
And the Raiders did it despite not receiving much preseason fanfare. After sitting out the national tournament in 2014, the Raiders were picked to finish fourth in the Panhandle Conference and sixth in the state.
“This team never got the respect it deserved early on,” DeMeo said. “People thought we were bad. They didn’t think we knew what we were doing.”
Yet the Raiders went 16-0 in a loaded nonconference slate and breezed through Panhandle Conference play with a 10-2 mark.
Unlike his 1995 Mustangs, though, the Raiders lived up to their top-five ranking by capturing a Region 8 crown.
Armed with a No. 2 seed in the national tourney, they routed 18th-seeded Columbia State and survived seventh-seeded Northwest College in the quarterfinals. Then came the thrilling 15-point comeback in the semifinals against Georgia Highlands, which led the Raiders by 15 points with 7:35 to play.
“I was a bit emotional while the game was going on,” DeMeo said. “I didn’t think we were going to lose, but I was like, ‘I’m so close to my goal that I’ve thought about every single day for 20 years. This can’t end now.’
“I got frickin’ emotional.”
When Brandon Austin was fouled with 0.8 seconds left in overtime and made the free throws to complete a 105-103 comeback win, DeMeo’s emotions came full circle.
“I don’t think anyone understood why I was so emotional after that win,” DeMeo said. “It put me through the wringer.”
That paled in comparison to Saturday’s 83-80 win over South Plains in the championship, another overtime victory earned after a missed 3 at the buzzer followedJarin Hilson’s pair of clutch free throws.
“It was just the culmination of everything, all of our hard work,” DeMeo said. “Nothing can beat that feeling.”
As for that heartache from 1995, it’s still there. It always will be, admitted DeMeo.
Yet it no longer defines him. Even if it came 20 years late, he’s finally got his national championship.