January 14, 2011

Breaking new ground

The holidays are over and as the snow melts, students are coming back to campus to join the players who have been around off and on during the break.

Hammond
Freshman Tyler Hammond has been a big part of Marietta's turnaround.
Marietta photo by Mitch Casey Photography

While there have been some great contests, Kean’s women upsetting top-ranked Amherst in overtime this week and the D3hoops.com Classic in Las Vegas, being cases in point, there’s been a number of rescheduled games due to the cold, white stuff getting in the way.

And that’s added to a sad note on the death of Dan Gorman, director of athletic training and associate professor of human performance and sport business at Mt. Union. Gorman was killed in an accident Tuesday night while travelling with the Purple Raiders wrestling team.

There are very few put there who can truly empathize with such a loss, but of the few who unfortunately can, it was reassuring of the true fellowship of Division III to see Bluffton — the community that lost five baseball players in 2007 in a bus accident — reaching out in support.

Our prayers go out to the Mt. Union athletes, students and faculty on such an untimely and tragic loss.

Breaking new ground
One of the big early surprises this season has been the rise of Marietta in the Ohio Athletic Conference.

The Pioneers won a school record 13 straight games out of the gate and rose to a No. 24 ranking in the poll before dropping their last two games on the road to Heidleberg and Capital.

From the outside view that’s a dramatic turn about for a program that hasn’t had winning record since the 1999-00 campaign when they finished 17-8 under then-coach Doug Foote. That decade under .500 can obviously be deceiving and the dramatic about face this season isn’t a surprise to Pioneers coach Jon VanderWal.

“It’s probably a big surprise for everyone else; it’s not to us,” said the third-year head coach. “I guess the 13-0 was but we were expecting this to be the year we broke out.”

Vanderwal, who was 28-49 at Marietta entering the season and sits at a more distinguished 41-51 after the fast start, has been building the Pioneers from his first recruiting class and those now very experienced juniors have been clicking, taking the Pioneers to the top of the OAC standings without a senior on the roster.

“It’s been a work in progress, when we got here three and a half years ago, the program wasn’t in a good state for playing in one of the toughest conferences in the country,” VanderWal said. “We brought in really good recruiting classes last three years. We made a big jump playing those freshmen who are now juniors. We’ve worked hard playing a lot of young guys and implementing our system and way of doing things.”

The Pioneers had a fairly set table, returning four starters and 13 lettermen that accounted for 86 percent of scoring, 80 percent of rebounding and 83 percent of the minutes in last season’s 10-16 campaign. But going by the numbers, it may be the steal of freshman point guard Tyler Hammond that has gotten the Pioneers over the hump.

Hammond is averaging 12.6 points per game, and not too coincidentally Marietta’s scoring average is up 12 points an outing (68 to 80) over last year. Instead of a minus-2 against the competition, Marietta is plus-12 and rolling with the freshman out of Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High. The same St. Ignatius just down the street from conference rival — and Saturday opponent — John Carroll.

“Recruiting in St. Ignatius is a gamble for us,” confessed VanderWal. “They’re just down the road from John Carroll. 

“We really liked Tyler. We knew he was someone we really wanted to have and we thought it was a long shot but worth the try. We were lucky enough, that he picked us.

“He’s got to be one of the best freshmen in the country the way he’s played so far this season. We have two dynamic players in Kevin Knab and Trevor Halther, but now we have a really explosive point guard. It makes it harder to guard us. He’s so fast and explosive we’re able to play more up tempo.”

Having already surpassed the season win total and matched last year’s conference victory mark. The Pioneers are eyeing a possible return to the tournament, something so far past none of the current players had been born the last time Marietta advanced past a conference tourney.

“I hope we’re that far long. That’s been our one and only goal is to find a way to make the tournament,” VanderWal said. “We’re going out and playing every night to be at our best, so we might be playing when other teams aren’t. Our guys are really focused on that goal, we think its feasible, achievable goal for us.”

Back-to-back losses aren’t really an overshadowing concern for the team after the confidence built over that winning streak that consumed half the schedule.

“We’re hoping we bounce back quickly but its doesn’t get any easier with John Carroll coming in on Saturday,” VanderWal said. “When you start 13-0 you’re on everybody’s radar and we’re not used to getting everyone’s A game. Adjusting to handling that target on our back, if we can do that we can have the kind of season we want to.”

40-minute men
It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all, but sometimes luck, God or the Great Pumpkin decide it’s time to test you a little bit.

Matt Tarricone was one of the iron five for Green Mountain to start the season.

Green Mountain College had 120 minutes of very solid testing to start the season.

Or maybe 600.

No matter how you count the court time, the Eagles (0-4) had just five players eligible and healthy for the 2010 portion of their schedule. So Aaron Ashton, Matt Tarricone, Daniel Kimatarale, Daniel Fifield and Cleopass Nakoma went the whole 40 minutes for the first three games.

“God bless them that they played 40 minutes every night,” Green Mountain coach Todd Montana said. “It was a perfect storm of bad luck in the beautiful world of small college basketball.”

The situation developed when Montana took a difficult stand on his expectations and after last season ended, informed four players they would no longer be playing another season for him. Then his roster took some unforseeable dips that left the coach of the Eagles with just five players to start the season.

“We had four guys from last year’s team who were supposed to be back and asked them not return for not meeting expectations in the program,” Montana said. “Then a fifth guy tears his ACL at the end of July, then one guy had to leave school for family reasons and one withdrew from a class and wasn’t eligibly to play first semester.”

Needless to say it was a very tough December for Montana and his Eagles who after a 9-17 campaign last season were looking to build back on the two previous seasons when Green Mountain went 21-5 and 16-11 while capturing the Association of Division III Independents Northeast Championship in 2007-2008 and had a trip to the North Atlantic Conference semifinals in 2008-2009.

That was already going to be a challenge with the graduation of Rui Carmo, the leading scorer in D-III (25 points and 12.1 rebounds per game).

“You lose five guys you should have had back that didn’t help,” Montana, an Ithaca grad said. “It was a conscious choice to reset, to get guys who were buying in to what we wanted to do.”

Green Mountain added six new players at the semester break but even doing some of the basic things was a challenge for the Eagles the first of the season.

“I played more than I would have probably liked to in practice,” Montana admitted. “I know my assistant played more than he would have liked to. We had to do a lot more  learning from watching tape than walking through it live in practice.

“To an extent it’s like Oct. 25 for us right now. The best part is the guys who were here playing 40 minutes, they have made the new players feel welcome and that’s made it easier. Of course they knew they’d lose some minutes and playing time, but that didn’t bother anybody. We’ll see how that transition goes. I like where we could be by the middle of February.”

Bumbling B's
For the first time in a long time, the race for the Pool B slot seems a little more open, bit if you caught the reference right, there is in fact only one Pool B spot this year for the independents.

Chapman (12-2) is the early leader but has to contend with that unique schedule that makes it a challenge to get regional wins due to the lack of D-III teams available to play midseason.

Maryville (8-7) — known as Murvul because of the way it's often pronounced in Tennessee — just got back above .500 Thursday night and has lost some ground from both a larger loss count than the Scots have generally owned for a whole season and the quality games scheduled have been against some of last season’s South region conference champs also having an off year — Guilford (10-5) and Averett (2-14).

Under the two B spot system, Huntingdon was making a case, but with just one spot, it’s going to be a different kind of argument for teams to make and fans to make on the message boards.

The snow drift
Giving a quick shout out to Tim Meyer (Wooster ‘78) for putting me on to the situation at Green Mountain. Reader ideas and comments help fuel not just the website as a whole, but certainly help me find notes of interest across the country. For your homework readers are asked to keep sending in the notes, don’t leave it to the school’s SID and extra credit for next week on any good snow stories from your favorite team. Did someone get stuck somewhere trying to get to a tourney? Random snowball get thrown on the court during a game? Students build a snowperson of the coach?

I apologize this edition was a little short, but the author is also struggling to get back to basketball after the holidays and snow and all the havoc that can cause to a work schedule.

Marcus Fitzsimmons is a multi-platform editor at The Daily Times in Maryville, Tenn., who after years of denial finally caved in and got an iPod. E-mail him, because he can’t hear a phone anymore with those earbuds in, at marcus.fitzsimmons@d3sports.com.

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