After a tough early schedule, Jays ready for KCAC

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
“There are times when our schedule goes exactly the way we’d like for it to go, and then there are years like this year.”

Tabor men’s coach Don Brubacher half smiles and half grimaces as he assesses the beastly schedule his team has endured in the opening weeks of this season.

Seven games against NAIA Division I schools. Five of them in Oklahoma. The other two against the same Oklahoma teams on a neutral court. No games at home.

“It’s typically not healthy to play the number of road games we’ve played in the pre-conference schedule, and then to play the level of competition we’re playing,” Brubacher said.

That his team came through this small-college hoops version of a Batan Death March with a 3-4 mark speaks well of the team that prepares to open its conference schedule at home tomorrow against Sterling.

“It’s been nice to see promising signs, and I hope we can build on those,” he said.

But even the friendly confines of the KCAC won’t be all that friendly this season, Brubacher predicts.

“The pre-conference seems to indicate there are quite a few conference teams that are very capable this season,” he said. “I’m really not certain how we’re going to stack up. The conference will probably be stronger than it was last year. We will have to continue to develop in order to compete.”

For what it’s worth, his fellow coaches think the Bluejays will stack up pretty well. They selected Tabor as the No. 2 team in the KCAC behind Ottawa, the defending champion.

There’s reason to think the coaches may be close to right in their assessment. One of Tabor’s three victories this season was an impressive 87-82 win over the defending national champions, University of Science & Arts of Oklahoma-in a game where the Jays didn’t even shoot particularly well, but stepped up defensively.

“We had sections of that game where we looked like we could become very good,” Brubacher said in characteristic understatement.

And why not? The Bluejays return essentially all but one starter from a team that finished second in the KCAC a year ago-even though it suffered more than its share of injuries to key players.

One of the missing injured was Micah Ratzlaff, a KCAC standout during the 2000-01 season. The 6-6 guard/forward is back after sitting out all of last season with a medical hardship.

In addition to Ratzlaff’s absence, Power forward Lance Redetzke was all but done by the holiday break after he was injured, and freshman Grant Brubacher played hurt the entire season.

Stepping up to fill the void were a cadre of players including Jeremiah Randall, Kyle Kopper, Derek Karber, Matt Fast, Landon Goerzen and Brandon Hendrix-all of whom return this season.

But two players, Scott Brubacher and Tyson Ratzlaff, carried the brunt of the load. The two Hillsboro products were a key reason the Bluejays earned a trip to the NAIA Division II tournament at season’s end.

The pair are back for more this season, too.

Actually, they’re back for less, according to Brubacher.

“We absolutely told ourselves as a coaching staff before the year started that we could not play anyone the number of minutes that we played Tyson and Scott last year,” Brubacher said. “They averaged well over 30 minutes a game-and it took a very serious toll on them.”

Fortunately for Tabor, the Bluejays are in a position where they can make some adjustments, thanks to the addition of several talented players who have joined the returning core.

Heading that list of “newcomers” is Micah Ratzlaff, who is returning to the form that made him a unanimous all-conference pick two years ago.

“We have Micah coming back, so we have quality minutes from a player of his caliber,” Brubacher said. “But then we need to have some other people step in and play.”

One of those has been Brad Gattis, a 6-5 freshman standout from Hesston.

“Brad was a part of the team’s effort from the very first game this year,” Brubacher said. “He had earned that with his play in practice, and it was obvious he was going to help us a lot.

“Even though he’s undersized at the No. 4 and 5 spots, Brad is capable of competing very effectively at either position. He has the athleticism and the skills to play the 4 spot and the strength and toughness to play at the 5 even though he’s 6-5.”

Also making an impact on the floor this season has been Cody Schafer, a 5-10 junior college transfer from Moundridge.

“He has stepped in immediately and will continue to be a significant part of our team effort,” Brubacher said.

Two other newcomers have contributed minutes more gradually. Chris Myers, a solid 6-8 freshman from Oklahoma City, gives Tabor a wide body in the paint, and Jered Reese, a 6-3 freshman from Nardin, Okla., shows promise at guard.

A fifth newcomer, Scott Shaffer, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Caldwell, played in the first two games of the season before being injured. He likely won’t return until after the holiday break.

Brubacher thinks one of the strengths of his team will be its ability to shoot the ball-although the Bluejays have been slow to prove their marksmanship so far, especially from 3-point range.

“I think that is a part of our game that will become a strength as the year goes along,” Brubacher said.

He also likes the way this team can handle the basketball and create plays off the dribble.

“We often have four players on the court who are effective ball-handlers and playmakers,” he said.

Defense figures to be another team strength, but the Jays have been inconsistent with it so far this season.

“We have the ability to defend well out on the court and around the basket,” Brubacher said. “We think we can be a very capable defensive team.”

Brubacher said rebounding is a question mark for this team, and he is also concerned about depth.

“Bench play needs to continue to become more consistent,” he said. “The good news is we have players who are capable. We just need to help them develop their game, and gain offensive and defensive consistency.”

Tabor will play Sterling in Hillsboro on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for around 8 p.m. On Saturday the Bluejays will travel to McPherson. That game is set to begin at 7 p.m.

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