VALPARAISO | Kevin Van Wijk was ready to quit.
Basketball had been his passion and the Valparaiso big man was ready to walk away after one year in Northwest Indiana. A surgically-repaired back wasn’t getting any better and playing for more than two minutes at a time was all but impossible.
Van Wijk was ready to give up the game he loved until a miracle worker walked into his life.
“Frank (Eksten) changed my life,” Van Wijk said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. He’s been there for me every day, almost as a father-figure. He’s helped me achieve my dreams with his knowledge.”
There were no guarantees that Van Wijk would trust Eksten when the Valparaiso big man walked into the Sports Medicine Institute in Crown Point for the first time. Van Wijk had met plenty of doctors by the time he was a sophomore and he could count the amount he trusted on zero fingers. Eksten had impressive credentials, working under Bob Knight at Indiana for 12 years, but it was the conversations that Van Wijk and Eksten had that sealed the bond.
“The way he talked to me, he didn’t throw difficult terms at me,” Van Wijk said. “I had so many doctors who would give me complicated terms. Frank spelled out what I needed to do and he told me that if I trusted him and I improved, I’d feel 200 percent better.”
Eksten’s regimen was simple: show up every day ready to work. Saying it was the easy part, but driving 45 miles and spending three hours a day just so the body could feel like a normal college athlete was the difficult part.
“Frank had me do a FMS (Functional Movement Screen) test and he told me that my score was the lowest he’d ever seen,” Van Wijk said. “It was during my sophomore year and he told me that if I got through the season and came in every day when the year was done, he promised me that by the next year, I’d be able to play.”
Van Wijk made a decision to stay in Valparaiso during the summer and he re-dedicated himself to getting healthy. Weight training began with two pounds of resistance and worked up to nearly 100 pounds. Eksten has trained Olympic athletes and plenty of Indiana basketball players, but Van Wijk represented a real challenge.
“I told him at the time that I wasn’t sure how much we could help him or how his body would hold up,” Eksten said. “We started working very slowly and I credit Kevin for his work ethic. He never missed a day and I can’t even imagine the amount of times that we’ve worked together. It’s been hundreds and hundreds of times that he’s been over here to train.”
The work paid off immediately in Van Wijk’s junior year when the Valparaiso big man went from averaging 13 minutes a game to more than 23 minutes. Van Wijk averaged 14.1 points and 5.2 rebounds while earning All-Horizon League honors. Last season ended in disappointment when Van Wijk went down with an injury against Detroit in the conference title game. The sting from the loss was enough to drive Van Wijk through another painful offseason of workouts.
“I felt good when the season started last year, like I could push people around on the court and could hold my ground,” Van Wijk said. “I was sore after games, but I knew that was going to happen. That’s just going to be part of my basketball career, whether I play one more year or 10 more years.”
Van Wijk suffered a bit of déjà vu this year in the Horizon League tournament when he went down with an ankle injury against Green Bay in the semifinals. Just as in last year’s game to Detroit, the Crusaders started to lose momentum after Van Wijk’s injury, but the senior gutted it out and got back on the floor.
“I didn’t know how this could happen again to us,” he said. “We’d fought so hard and we didn’t deserve to lose the game because of a stupid rebound. I was so mad. We deserved better than that.”
Van Wijk will be heavily counted on when the No. 14 Crusaders face No. 3 Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday. The Spartans feature a physical frontline that is sure to give Valparaiso fits. It’s unseen as to how effective Van Wijk will be against Michigan State, but with his work ethic and Eksten’s help, the Crusaders will have a fighting chance.
“I put more time into this than maybe anyone else ever has at Valparaiso,” Van Wijk said. “I want to do good for my teammates. It doesn’t matter about personal stats, any of that stuff. If going to Frank’s everyday was what I needed to do to get us in this position, for me to do this for my teammates, that’s what I had to do. The closer our goal (of the NCAA tournament came) came, I thought about all the years, all the workouts, all the training and the driving. It’s all worth it for this moment.”