What rebuild? Unbeaten Wittenberg no longer a surprise

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Balser, a transfer from league foe Wooster, has helped the Tigers reload ahead of schedule.
Photo by Nick Falzerano

With four starters graduated from last season’s team, many thought Wittenberg would take a step back or need some time to fashion a championship-caliber team.

Well, so much for that.

The Tigers are undefeated through their first 13 games and reside atop the NCAC standings.

“It’s a great feeling, but we honestly have to keep grinding,” Wittenberg junior guard Mitch Balser said. “At the beginning of the year, everyone said it was going to be a rebuilding year. Now, people are hunting us. We have to work a little harder and do a little extra because we know people are coming for us. We don’t have the underdog mentality; we have the mentality to come out and play like people are coming after us.”

Wittenberg head coach Matt Croci thinks his Tigers are progressing according to plan.

“There was some uncertainty with the combination of losing four senior starters from last year and being really young and having new guys in new places this year. We’re a little surprised by the record,” he said.  “The record is one thing, but how we’re playing and how our team chemistry has come along and some of the things we’ve done well on the floor has not. The win-loss record is not where we thought we’d be, but we’ll take it.”

Senior Chad Roy is Wittenberg’s only returning starter from last season. So, the Tigers looked to him for leadership right away.

As the lone returning starter, Roy has delivered on the court while providing valuable leadership.
Photo by Nick Falzerano

“We needed Chad to have a really good senior year. He’s gotten better every single year he has been on campus. But, if we were going to have a good-to-special year, we needed him to be at a high level,” Croci said. “He is very consistent and the guys know they can depend on him.”

The squad got a boost with the addition of Balser, a Wooster transfer.

“He’s been a huge help for us,” Roy said. “He really stepped in and has been our lead point guard. With some of the injuries we’ve had, he’s been off the ball a little, but he’ll do whatever the team needs.”

Unselfishness has been a huge factor for the Tigers.

“They are a really fun group to coach. That’s easy for me to say when we’re sitting where we are,” Croci said. “But, they really compete and get after each other. They are all in it for each other, which makes it fun to coach. The biggest thing for us right now is they genuinely love to compete. It doesn’t matter the opponent or how big the game is, they just love to compete.”

That’s one reason why Wittenberg boasts the NCAC’s top defense at 66.2 points per game.

“We always say that the toughest team wins. We’re going to fight and play as hard as we can every possession,” Balser said. “We really pride ourselves on our toughness and grinding and going as hard as we can all the time.”

“That was a little bit of a question mark coming into the season. We thought we’d be more offensively skilled,” Croci said. “The question was would we be able to defend and rebound like we needed to? We spent so much time focusing on the defensive side of the ball and technique and watching video. There will be nights where the ball doesn’t go in and you have to get stops. As the season goes on, not only have they bought in, but they’ve seen it work. Once they see it be successful, they buy in more and it just snowballs.”

The Tigers have had success racking up the points, too. They average 83.2 points per game – second in the NCAC.

“We probably have six or seven guys who could go off for 20 any night,” Roy said. “We’re really balanced inside and out. That makes us hard to stop because we’re so balanced on the offensive end.”

Roy leads the way at 14.8 points per game. Sophomore Connor Seipel and Balser are at 12.0 ppg, while freshman James Johnson (10.6) and sophomore Jacob Bertemes (9.5) are next.

“I think that’s been one of our advantages; when you average 83 points per game and your leading scorer only is only at 14.8 points per game, I think that makes us a challenge to defend,” Croci said. “That’s a credit to the guys willing to play the right way and look for the high-percentage shot. They don’t want the credit; they want the possession and for games to be successful for us.”

Wittenberg won its last four games by 13 points or more, but some close games (a pair of four-point wins and a two-point triumph) helped give the young squad some confidence.

“I knew we had the talent. It was just a matter of how our young players would respond to close game situations. Early on, we had a couple close ones and we pulled them out,” Roy said. “Once we realized we can play close games and grind out and win, that gave us a boost.”

The start is great, but the Tigers want a strong finish as well.

“We have a tough stretch coming up. We really need to focus, pay attention to detail and make sure we’re locked in and trying to get better,” Balser said. “There are a lot of things we can improve on. We’re trying to worry about ourselves and what we can control.”

Added Croci, “We feel happy where we are. But, we know it’s just like playing a game – it’s two 20-minute halves and not one. We have lot of games to go and there are no easy games on the schedule. Our conference is pretty good. We’ll try to stay focused and understand that, if we focus on ourselves and do what we need to do, things will go our way more than they won’t.”

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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