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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Athletics

Road to the Final Four

Led by Coach Hironaka, the Falcons earn their shot at a national championship

For only the second time in Seattle Pacific University history, the Falcons advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II men’s basketball championships. On March 22, 2006, in Springfield, Massachusetts, No. 10-ranked SPU surged past No. 7 Montevallo in the final eight minutes of the opening quarterfinal game to win 79-65. But in a hard-fought semifinal game the following day, the Falcons lost their bid to play in the finals by succumbing to defending champion Virginia Union 68-63.

Tony Binetti, GNAC player of the year, is the center of high-five action following the Falcons' victory in the regional finals.

If anyone deserves credit for Seattle Pacific’s electric season, it’s Head Coach Jeff Hironaka. In only his fourth year at the helm, Hironaka didn’t take long to leave his mark on SPU basketball. He led the team to a 22-5 regular-season record, won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship, and finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally.

That was enough to make him the nearunanimous choice of his fellow coaches for GNAC coach of the year. While Hironaka didn’t mind the recognition, he prefers not to be the only one honored. “I’m not big on individual awards,” he says. “The award was given to me because of what my team and my staff achieved, so it’s more credit to them as far as I’m concerned.”

As if to prove his point, Hironaka and his team kept right on doing what they do best. Having earned the right to host the NCAA Division II West Regional tournament, the top-seeded Falcons proceeded to win it, gaining a berth in the national playoffs’ Elite Eight. Hironaka, who was soon named West Region coach of the year, is only the third Seattle Pacific men’s basketball coach in 62 years to reach the Elite Eight.

If the coach’s achievements this year were impressive, they weren’t entirely unprecedented. The Falcons also made the regional tournament last year, although they fell in the first round. And in 2003, only a season-ending, three-point loss to Central Washington kept Hironaka from becoming the first SPU coach to go to the postseason in his first year.

After that season, in which they went 16- 11, the Falcons lost six seniors, including four starters — all inherited from Ken Bone, the previous coach. Since then, it’s been pretty much Hironaka’s team. Following a 14-13 rebuilding year, he’s returned SPU to contender status while compiling a 75-38 career record.

After this year’s tournament, Hironaka will bid farewell to the first group of seniors to come up through his program. Among them is 6-foot-1-inch point guard Tony Binetti, a former Enumclaw High School standout. Binetti, 22, also garnered a GNAC award this season: His 18.5 points, 5.2 assists, and 2.0 steals per game earned him player of the year honors. He was the top vote-getter to represent the region in Division II’s tournament all-star game and only the third SPU player ever to be named a first-team All-American by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

“It’s nice to be recognized,” Binetti admits, “but as I’ve said before, it’s because of our team that you get those types of individual awards. It’s a testament to our team’s success.”

If Binetti’s attitude sounds familiar, then that’s a testament to Hironaka’s influence on his players. “He’s the most dedicated coach I’ve ever seen,” says Binetti. “He’s so focused on preparation. Sometimes we have to tell him to relax and enjoy the win, but then his focus is why he’s so successful. In terms of pure basketball knowledge, he’s the best coach I’ve ever played for.”

Recruited by Bone, Binetti signed his letter of intent for Seattle Pacific before even playing his senior year in high school. “I wanted a school with good academics that was close to home,” he says. “I made my decision because of SPU’s success.” But then Bone departed for the University of Washington, and Hironaka, an 11-year assistant coach at SPU, took over. “I could have gotten out of the scholarship agreement,” says Binetti, “but I really respected Coach Hiro and the time he had put in the system.”

In the classroom as well as on the court, Binetti has thrived: He earned a 3.56 GPA and was named to the first-team all-conference and second-team all-regional academic squads this year. “My professors understand the situation of the student athlete,” he says. “When a professor makes it easy for you if you miss an assignment or class because of traveling, you want to do well for that professor.”

Academic success is the norm for the Falcons, who placed five players on the GNAC academic team. Thanks to strict recruiting standards, “the players we get are Ivy League or Patriot League type players who are smart kids,” says Hironaka. “We run plays that kids who know the game can execute. We emphasize sharing the ball, balance, and the team concept rather than pure athleticism.”

Against their Elite Eight opponents, the Falcons were considered underdogs. But Hironaka, whose team has outperformed preseason expectations every year he’s coached, is comfortable in that role.

Of course, it’s a comfort he may have to forgo in the future if his team’s success continues.

— BY Martin Stillion

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