Photo above: Junior forward John Hatch pulls up for a jump shot against UCCS. Photo by Charlie Lengal
Few varsity sports teams at our school have a roster with zero seniors; but men’s basketball is one of these teams. Having a predominantly underclassman team and playing highly ranked DIII and even DII schools has proved to be a challenge this season. Two weekends in a row, the men’s basketball team has played back-to-back-to-back games which have tested, pushed, and exhausted them. The Tigers played against Augsburg College on Friday, St. Johns University on Saturday, and UCCS on Monday night. Now, six games into their season, the team’s 1-5 record is mentally fueling them for the road ahead.
Their first win of the season came on Friday night against Augsburg, where the Tigers led the entire game up until the fourth quarter. Down by three with a minute to go, the Tigers kept their composure, regained the lead, and walked away with a win. “We were successful because we executed the things we work on in practice everyday,” said Assistant Coach Mike Hart. “Communication was well executed, the offense was run well, and we stuck to the game plan defensively.”
Junior forward John Hatch echoed that communication is key, and he attributed Friday night’s win to the team’s level of communication. “Great communication and execution allow us to play really well, but if we aren’t communicating then it’s impossible to execute,” Hatch said.
“We’ve seen both sides of that too: against St. Johns we didn’t communicate and got blown out by 25 in our home gym, but against Augsburg we played tough and won.”
According to junior point guard Bobby Roth, it always comes down to communication. Before, during, and after the game, the conversation revolves around the importance of talking to one another. “In past years, communication has been lacking and this year we are really trying to get everyone comfortable with constant communication,” Roth said. He added that because the team spends so much time together both on and off the court, they assume that everyone knows what is going on at all times. “We make assumptions that players know where to go or what to do, and those assumptions hurt us.”
In the past there was an undeniable disconnect between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen on the team. Head Coach Andy Partee explained that the current junior class and last year’s senior class struggled to communicate effectively with each other two years ago. The friction created by their leadership style set an unhealthy precedent for the next two seasons that they played together. “The fear in the offseason was that’s what they [the current junior class] knew from their experience and that may be how they decide to lead.” He continued, “We had to constantly coach them on ‘reflect back on your experience, how did you want someone to communicate with you when you were young,’” said Partee.
Along with working on communication, the team is focused on improving all their fundamentals this season. Having just played three games two weekends in a row, the team is a little banged up, according to Hart. “Our team has been very challenged this year— tough competition and game after game after game,” Hart said. “Now that we have some time to breathe before our next game we are going to work on being more fundamentally sound as a team.”
Because there are no seniors on the team this year, the Tigers feel that they are very much still figuring themselves out. The juniors are the leaders on the team, and according to Hart, they need to be stepping up every single game. “They have a lot of confidence in their abilities but its never been their team before,” Hart said. “They wanted this responsibility and now they are starting to understand what it entails.”
“I was afraid of a lack of maturity and leadership, not having been required to lead,” Partee said when discussing the new role for juniors on the team. He explained that the absence of players in the senior class has presented obstacles to the team, but has simultaneously allowed players to step into new roles. “It’s created challenges but it’s also opened doors for some guys to grow.”
For the juniors, especially the four that live together, according to Hatch, spending so much time together these past three years gives them chemistry on the court. “The juniors are all really comfortable playing together,” Hatch said. “We just need everyone to be healthy.” When the Tigers played UCCS all three point guards were injured, and the team felt the effects. The first step to winning games is having everyone on the team healthy.
The junior class’ closeness in age “lends itself to being candid in holding one another accountable,” Partee said. “I think they can find that balance between not breaching the friendship but pushing my peers. They’re pushing each other to try to stay on task and get better every single day, and not allowing anyone to take any days off.”
Partee hopes that this year’s junior class is arriving at what he describes as the fourth stage of an athlete’s development, a stage in which their mindset is “unconsciously competent,” where knowledge of how to execute their role in a certain situation is automatic and instinctive. He hopes that confidence begins to overshadow self-doubt in their play.
According to Hart, it’s important that everyone be healthy because each junior brings something different to the table: Junior guard Eric Houska has an amazing ability to score and distribute the ball, Hatch is essential because of his athleticism, Roth can defend the other team’s best players, junior guard/forward Ryan Young is versatile, while junior forward Chris Martin plays with amazing stamina. Hart knows there is a lot potential for this young team. In time, the team’s hard work and hustle will show in their record.