ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Even Don Brubacher, master of the media undersell, has difficulty downplaying the potential of his men’s basketball team this season.
The Tabor head coach, now in his 18th year at the helm, has a solid core of returning seniors and has added significant depth, athleticism and especially physical strength with the arrival of several key transfers.
“We will have a level of physical strength that I have never seen in Tabor basketball-and not at any sacrifice of athleticism,” Brubacher said. “The guys can really run and jump and are really very quick.
“This team will be as good as they learn to pass the ball, play together and just execute the game intelligently,” he added.
At the top of the list of returning seniors is Kevin Koehn, a 6-4 forward who was the Jays’ leading scorer last season at 17.1 points a game and a unanimous all-conference selection.
“Kevin was definitely our strongest offensive player and our most versatile player,” Brubacher said of the 6-4 Montezuma native, a natural shooting guard or small forward who also played some center last season.
“He was actually forced to play a wider role last year than was healthy for him,” Brubacher said.
Koehn is joined by five classmates who saw considerable playing time last season: Eric Driggers (6-4), Hillsboro; Dustin Frost (6-0), Geneseo; Chris Popp (6-5), Wichita; Tyler Brown (5-9), McPherson; and Matt Glanzer (6-1), Houston, Texas.
“Every one of them has made significant improvement in their game,” Brubacher said.
The six, with the late departure of former head coach Don Zimmerman and the graduation of a host of seniors from the previous season, were suddenly thrust into leadership roles last season and battled to a 12-17 record overall and 6-10 in the KCAC with some hot-and-cold play.
“There’s no doubt that last year was a learning experience from beginning to end, simply because they’d never been in a position where the team relied on them on the college level to any significant extent,” Brubacher said.
The needs of the team required that several of the players fill positions on the floor that were not always to their personal benefit.
The addition of several talented newcomers should change that, Brubacher said.
“I think it will be a better situation for all the returners, one in which they can function more successfully than they could have possibly done last year.”
Indeed, it is the influx of new talent that has had the campus buzzing this fall.
The best known is Micah Ratzlaff, the hometown hero who played his first two years of college ball at Oral Roberts University, earning a starting spot toward the end of last season.
“Micah is just a great athlete at this level,” Brubacher said of the 6-5 junior. “He’s also wonderfully skilled and very versatile. Stan Shewey was the only other player I’ve coached that could play anywhere from point (guard) to the 5-spot. But Micah’s capable of that.”
Also entering the program as junior transfers are Jimmy Janzen (6-3), another hometown product, Ernest Nortey (6-5), from Winnipeg, Man., and Lance Redetzke (6-6), from Barnum Minn.
“Jimmy’s game has just continued to develop and grow,” Brubacher said. “I’m confident he will be a very strong player for us this year.
Brubacher’s best-kept secrets may be Nortey and Redetzke, who also bring significant athleticism, versatility and physical strength to the floor.
“Ernest is a phenomenal athlete,” Brubacher added. “Fundamentally, he is as good as anybody we have on the team.”
What pleases Brubacher most about his newcomers, though, may be their work ethic.
“All four of those transfers just play as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They give great effort on the practice court and on the game court.”
If the Jays have a weakness, it’s height. That problem could be addressed down the road with the addition of newcomer Kris Williams, a 6-10 sophomore center from Broken Arrow, Okla.
“He’s also very gifted and has a lot of ability,” Brubacher said. “He’s an excellent athlete at 6-10. Because he’s been away from the game for a number of years, it will take him more time to become accustomed to our style of play and learn the system and make an impact.”
The addition of so many talented players brings benefits and challenges, Brubacher said.
Depth will be a definite strength. Brubacher expects to go 11 to 12 players deep this season.
“We have a very large number of players who are very versatile in their skills and their athletic ability,” he said. “They play a lot of different positions and do a lot of different things on the court.”
Beyond the returners and transfers is a group of talented sophomores waiting in the wings: Scott Brubacher (5-10), Hillsboro, who may have the best chance to break into a starting role; Kyle Kopper (5-11), Cimarron; Ryan Camping (6-2), Peoria, Ariz.; Derrek Karber (6-7), Ulysses; Justin Steiner (6-7), Jenks, Okla.; and Brad Shields (6-5), Lindsborg.
“Those sophomores are going to contribute to the program in real big ways in the long run,” Brubacher said. “There’s a group of sophomores who I think are ready behind the upperclassmen to contribute however we need to have them contribute.”
Brubacher sees execution as the biggest challenge facing his team.
“We are consciously not talking about team chemistry or roles,” he said. “Those, in my judgment, need to evolve as they execute the game and we see the strengths and weakness of each player as they apply to the game we play.”
But he admits, with so much talent on the team, chemistry may become an issue down the road.
“Last year we struggled to find scoring,” he said. “This year it’s going to be a matter of finding enough basketballs, of having enough scoring opportunities to keep the players we have contented. We have a lot of scorers.
“Chemistry is a huge issue. So far, the guys seem to enjoy each other. They seem to enjoy playing together, but they haven’t had to compete for shots in a game yet.”
A personal challenge, albeit a nice one, for Brubacher has been the success of the women’s soccer team. As its head coach, he has focused a lot energy and time on their season instead of his basketball team.
“I’m leaning a lot more heavily on Jeff Luster than you ever should on a first-year assistant coach because of the soccer situation,” Brubacher said. “Jeff is carrying the load for the varsity team at this point and he’s doing very well with it.
“We would be in horrible straits if we had not been able to hire Jeff in the position he’s in. It would be a lot harder for me and disastrous for the basketball team. That’s just the way it is.”
Brubacher said he doesn’t know how his team will finish in the KCAC this year. Both the coaches and media recently picked the Jays to finish second behind Bethany.
Brubacher doesn’t deny the possibility, but said his team isn’t that good just yet.
“At this point we still don’t pass the ball very well as a team, we’re still struggling with execution of our offense,” he said. “We’re getting better, but we’re struggling with it. And we’re struggling with some aspects of defensive execution also.
“They need to execute well, they need to play very hard, they need to play intelligently, but the level of athleticism is encouraging.”
The Jays opened their season yesterday at Northwest Oklahoma State. The results should be available on the Free Line (947-3363) and the Free Press Web site (old.hillsborofreepress.com).
This weekend, the Jays will host the first of two no-pass tournaments this season. Tabor will play Central Christian College of McPherson on Friday and St. Gregory of Shawnee, Okla., on Saturday. Both games will begin at 8 p.m.
McPherson College is the fourth team in this year’s Tabor Classic.
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF