WEST LIBERTY - Alex Falk knows the next loss is going to be the final one for him not just in a West Liberty uniform, but in terms of the game of basketball itself. Sure, the senior could go overseas and play professionally once he graduates, but that's never been part of the plan.
You see, Falk has other things he wants to do in life, which is why he applied for, and was recently accepted into West Liberty's graduate Physician's Assistant program. Some would say that's a waste of talent, but Falk has more than one. A 3.4 student majoring in Biology, Falk has always been good when it comes to the classroom.
''This is what I have always wanted to do, is be in the medical setting. It's a great opportunity,'' Falk said Wednesday, not long after learning he had been named NCAA Division II National Player of the Year. ''I love helping people and always wanted to know what's wrong with people - the pathology of stuff. It's something that's driven me and it's why I picked Biology, because it's the best way to get to the medical field.''
It's a competitive endeavor to say the least, as only 19 of the 600 applicants will be starting classes July 2. Of course, Falk knows all about beating long odds since he did so just to get to West Liberty. There were no Division-I offers and the ones coming from D-II were few and far between. He says he picked the Hilltoppers because coming out of Ohio's Upper Sandusky High School, where he was a teammate with future Ohio State star guard Jon Diebler, Falk was looking for a program that fit his skill set.
He found that on the hilltop, even though he had to go through a 90-minute on-court job interview, if you will, simply to be asked to come back and play again. West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield recalled looking at film of the 6-foot-3 wing player and having questions as to where exactly Falk would fit in. He wasn't a great perimeter shooter at that point, but didn't have the size to play underneath the basket.
''I don't try to pressure kids in this office and tell them 'tell me right now if you want to come here or it will be off the table tomorrow,' '' Crutchfield said. ''I always tell them to go home and talk to your family - don't let the excitement overwhelm you.''
He said 'Coach, I'm coming.' I said 'well go home and talk to your parents.'
"And he told me that if I wanted him to go home and talk to his family he would, but 'I'm telling you right now I'm coming here.' ''
Still, it wasn't as though Falk turned into an instant star. He came off the bench as a freshman and was ticketed for the same role the following season. That is until Crutchfield finally decided Falk was too good not to start, and he has rarely come off the floor since.
From role player to national player of the year in four seasons.
"I'm not the best Division-II athlete out there - I'm not anywhere near that," Falk said. "It was completely unexpected.
"We're a humble group. No one person stands above anyone else or thinks they're better than anyone else."
If only that were completely true. The fact is, Falk is the No. 1 player on the No. 1 team in the country, and his attitude is a big part of the equation. He scores 21 points a game, guards the opposing team's best player and is the active career D-II leader in steals. This season alone he's swiped away 101, which is one off Corey Pelle's school single-season record.
One of Crutchfield's favorite Falk memories involves Ohio's North-South All-Star game, one in which the coach said Falk really didn't fit into because he's not a flashy player. So there was Falk hounding the other team's best scorer into a five-second call near half court in an all-star game. Falk looked at Crutchfield in the stands and pumped his fist.
"I was like 'that's my guy right there. You got all the cool guys, but I got him,' " Crutchfield said with a laugh. "I know he's probably not your prototypical national player of the year, but I think everybody appreciates the guy who puts forth more effort and maximizes his skills.
"I think he's the kind of guy other coaches say 'man, I wish I had a guy like him.'
"And they're not saying that because he can shoot the ball so well, jump so high or whatever it is. It's the way he plays the game that has brought about this award for him."
Falk says that fire was instilled in him by his parents at a very young age. It's also why he gets upset when he sees a person that doesn't want to get better in whatever they may be doing at the time.
"That's why I don't like how competitive things are kind of being taken away for younger generations. I hate it and it's something that I'm not going to teach my kids in the future," he said. "Competitiveness is important in everything. If you don't learn to be competitive, you're not going to get a job any time soon in this market.
"I feel like being hardworking and competitive is the No. 1 asset that you need to be successful."
Will Falk be sad - win or lose a national championship - when he takes that sweat-soaked jersey off for the final time? You bet. But knowing you have something even bigger and better out there that interests you is not a chance all too many of us are afforded.
"It's a good thing to do and I'm thankful I have the ability to do it. I'm excited about my future," Falk said.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org