He isn’t known for breaking records or scoring threes, but Paul Hiepler earned his stardom on social media last week with his passion for the team, the university and the game.
The sophomore guard from Camarillo, California, played just 24 minutes and scored 7 points this season, but within seconds became the face of the men’s basketball team.
Typically, Hiepler prefaces every game on the court performing ritual handshakes with each starter. During the game, he works as a scout on the bench, helping players on the court recognize plays run by the other team, watching film beforehand to assess strengths and weaknesses and other logistical information.
After the Southland Conference Championship win over the University of New Orleans, news outlets like the Dallas Morning News, Abilene Reporter-News and ESPN quickly picked up the so-called “Cinderella story” – the Wildcats’ first trip to March Madness. Hiepler was the face of almost all of them.
Hiepler said it was weird seeing his face everywhere, especially after the game in Katy. When he got back to his hotel, he turned on the television to see himself kissing the trophy and Jaylen Franklin getting excited.
“It was cool because there’s not many pictures of me,” Hiepler said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m on ESPN.’ It was one of those moments – it’s a bucket list item.”
But his stint on the national stage almost didn’t happen. After the Southland Conference championship game, Hiepler considered skipping the NCAA tournament game and visiting his grandfather in the hospital back home. But when he called, his grandfather congratulated him on the win and told him to go finish the job in Jacksonville. The day after the tournament, his grandfather died.
“That’s always going to be a special moment, it’s one of those sacred things,” Hiepler said. “When you commit to play somewhere at the Div. I level, it’s everyone’s dream to win the conference championship and go to the NCAA tournament, but very few people actually get to do that. Achieving that in only my second year here, I feel spoiled.”
Hiepler said in 2012 he went to his first Final Four game with his dad, and Kentucky won. So to play them seven years later was life-changing. When he walked out on the court and saw John Calipari on the other side and Kentucky across the opposing team’s chests, he felt like he was in a dream.
Head coach Joe Golding put Heipler in the game for only the final few seconds, but that’s all he needed to gain national attention.
As the CBS camera panned across the bench and zeroed in on Hiepler’s enthusiastic flailing, one announcer chuckled, “And there’s Mr. Enthusiasm…”
After the game, one of the photographers walked into the locker room and thanked him for how he performed.
“I just have fun. Whether I’m on the court or on the bench, I’m just out there cheering on my teammates and making sure they’re fueled to go,” Hiepler said. “That’s how I feel like I made them better this year, by being the crazy guy on the side.”
Hiepler said the best part of the tournament was the watch party turnout. He never thought he’d see so many people sitting in the stands of Moody to watch a basketball game, especially on a screen.
Though the attention of March Madness increased basketball’s following, Hiepler said he hopes it carries over into other sports and the university as a whole.
He doesn’t have a favorite sport, but tries to make sure other athletes feel supported. During football season, he and his friends attempt to get a player on the opposing team to notice them by shouting random phrases. Sometimes, it works.
“We’re all in this together, we’re all athletes, and we all want the school to be proud of us and support us.”
Regarding the university, Hiepler said he wants the world to know who ACU is because it’s such a special place considering how few truly-Christian schools there are.
“It could really be a superpower place coming in the next decade or two,” Hiepler said. “It could be the hidden gem that people didn’t know about, but eventually everyone knows about. That’s why I love being on the team.”
Though they have two weeks of practice off, Hiepler already has goals for next season. He said obviously, he’d like to get on the court more, but whatever it takes to return to the position the team was in this year, he’d do it.
“If I have to sweep the floor, I’m going to sweep the floor, if I have to clean the gym I’m going to do that. I just love being part of this team and part of what has been created here,” Hiepler said. “My goal is to play and my goal is to be the best player that I can be, but I’m going to do whatever Coach Golding tells me to do.”
Despite misconceptions of reserve players, Hiepler said he does everything the starters do and more including personal workouts and practice everyday, whereas starters typically lift two to three times per week.
As a leader next year, one of his other goals is to make sure every player buys into the mission of ACU basketball – to show the world who Jesus is and take pride in their team and school. He also wants to make sure he’s more involved with his coach.
Golding reinforced that Heipler is one of the hardest working players on the team. Even when they aren’t practicing as a group, Heipler is consistently in the gym taking shots or doing a workout.
“I think all of the guys on our team appreciate Paul’s work ethic,” Golding said. “He’s got a dream to play Div. I basketball and he’s made that dream happen.”
Alongside his work ethic, Hiepler was commended on the energy he brings to grow the culture of the team. Golding said
“It’s a big part of who we are and he’s embraced that role of being a leader and getting guys to be energized on the bench,” Golding said. “He keeps guys motivated and engaged, and he’s part of why we win games.”