ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
The only certain thing in the KCAC men’s basketball race this season is that it’s uncertain who the favorite should be.
Among the contenders for the conference title are the Tabor Bluejays.
“It’s very difficult to predict how the conference will finish this year because so many teams have had so many changes,” said Don Brubacher, Bluejay coach. “Bethel and Bethany, two of the top teams in the conference, basically lost their whole teams, so that changes the situation.”
Brubacher’s Bluejays were picked second by the media and third by the coaches at the KCAC’s annual media day in Wichita last month.
“I didn’t have any preconceived notion about where we’d be picked, so I wasn’t disappointed at all,” he said.
Brubacher begins his 22nd year as coach, rolling up a 307-230 record in that span.
Last year, Tabor finished third with a 12-6 conference record and an 18-11 record overall.
Brubacher will be assisted in the varsity program by Toby Peck, a former coach in Pennsylvania, and first-year assistants Darren Gray as head coach for the junior varsity and Gray assistant, Matt Vogt.
On the court, the Bluejays will attempt to blend a mix of veterans, transfers and newcomers.
“We have a reasonably balanced group in terms of players who are younger and also some who have a lot of experience,” Brubacher said. “Our team is typical of what we’re trying to accomplish here-and that is to have a blend so we can compete well each year.”
As you would expect, Brubacher will look to his returning seniors for team leadership.
“We always look to seniors, but we have other players who need to increase their role on this team,” he said. “Having someone who is the strongest on offense lead the team is something I try to keep an open mind about.”
Brubacher said three seniors will form the leadership core this season:
— Tyson Ratzlaff (10.6 points per game, 4.2 rebs.). The 6-foot, 1-inch Hillsboro native led the team with 111 assists last season.
“Tyson is the player about whom we have the most certainty about his ability,” Brubacher said. “We know what he can contribute.
“Tyson’s offensive production, as far as scoring, is based entirely on his ability to shoot the ball well,” he added. “When he shoots the ball well, especially outside the 3-point line, he can produce some big numbers for us.
“But if he isn’t shooting well, he becomes more of a play-maker, rather than a scorer.”
Just when Ratzlaff, an All-American wide receiver on the nationally ranked Bluejay football team, joins the team depends on the length of the football season.
— Jeremiah Randall (7.1 points per game, 3.8 rebs). Randall (6-6) was the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter last season at 39 percent.
“Jeremiah has a lot of ability and is a good low-post player on both ends of the court,” Brubacher said. “But his greatest strength offensively is his ability to shoot the ball, and that extends past the 3-point line.
“We’ve moved Jeremiah to the five-spot and we anticipate most of his playing time to come from there,” he added. “We can do some interesting things with him at that spot. He’s also increased his strength in the off-season.”
— Cody Schafer (3.8 points per game, 2.1 rebs). Schafer (5-10) will be asked to move from shooting guard to point guard.
“It appears we need to have Cody handle the ball more this year,” Brubacher said of the Moundridge native. “He was very inconsistent last season, but it seems he becomes more consistent when he handles the ball.”
Schafer demonstrated his quickness by recording 20 steals last season, which was fourth on the team.
Brubacher said while these three will be key cogs for the team, Tabor also returns several players with game experience.
Junior Grant Brubacher (5.2 points per game, 2.3 rebs) was expected to replace brother Scott, an honorable mention All-KCAC selection and member of the KCAC All-Defensive Team last season as a senior, but a pattern of nagging injuries has slowed the younger Brubacher.
“We had hoped Grant (5-10) would increase his contribution on both ends of the court, but a preseason injury has put that in jeopardy,” Brubacher said. “His dribbling, ball handling, and passing skills are best on the team and, if the situation is right, Grant has the ability to score points.
“Grant understands the system well,” he said. “Since he chose not to play soccer for the first time in his college career, we had hoped for a much faster start, but the injury has put his season in jeopardy.”
Brad Gattis (12.4 points per game, 4.4 rebs) was a member of the All-KCAC freshman team last season. The 6-5 sophomore from Hesston was the team’s second-leading scorer last year behind All-American Micah Ratzlaff.
“Brad has improved his skills in the off-season,” Brubacher said. “He has considerable ability to score and he will be a central focus in our offense this year.”
Sophomore Colby Bettles (3.7 points per game, 1.9 rebs) came on strong toward the end of last season.
“Colby has continued to improve and has stayed healthy,” Brubacher said. “We are looking for him to contribute significantly this year.”
The 6-6 Herington native shot a team-high 64 percent from the field.
Chris Myers (1.7 points per game, 1.3 rebs), a 6-8 sophomore, split duties with Bettles and Derek Karber, now graduated, at the center position last season.
“Chris had knee surgery in September and is still struggling with that,” Brubacher said. “Once he gets healthy, we think he’ll contribute a lot for us.”
Also returning with varsity experience for Tabor are a pair of 6-3 sophomores, Jared Reece and Scott Shaffer, and a 6-2 sophomore, Matt Nelson.
“All three have obviously made substantial improvements in their games,” Brubacher said.
Having lost five seniors to graduation-including two with all-conference honors-Brubacher said the Bluejays were able to fill the void thanks to a successful recruiting season.
Five newcomers join the Tabor squad this year.
Tony Monson, a 6-6 transfer from Central Lakes College, Brainerd, Minn., adds experience and quickness to the Bluejays.
“Tony played for one of my former assistants, Jim Russell, so his knowledge of our system is good,” Brubachers said. “Tony is a very athletic player.”
James Black, a 6-2 transfer from Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif., will be called upon to be a defensive stopper for the Bluejays.
“He’s an athletic swingman who is an excellent defensive player,” Brubacher said. “He’s a very good rebounder who also has considerable offensive skills.”
Josh Reeves, a 6-4 sophomore transfer from Garden City Community College, originates from Maize.
“Josh also has the advantage of knowing our system, having played for Mike Brenneman at Maize, where they run a lot of our offense,” Brubacher said. “Josh is a good shooter, plus he’s intelligent and a very competitive player. He already understands our half-court offense as well as any of our returning players.”
Freshmen Andy Brubacher, a 5-10 guard from Hillsboro, and Tony LeRud, a 5-10 guard from Woodberry, Minn., round out the class.
“Andy has stepped into a much larger role with the injury to Grant, and Tony has considerable abilities, especially to score,” Brubacher said.
Brubacher said he tries to recruit position players.
“We wanted a good swingman and a good defender because we struggled last year with athletic 6-3 swing players who could play inside and out,” Brubacher said. “Each year, we try to recruit a complete team, one at each position, but we aren’t always successful.”
The coach said the style of play will determine the number of players incorporated into this year’s rotation.
“Right now, it appears we’re going to have a very dynamic style of play,” he said. “We need to run and push the ball aggressively in transition.
“If we play 40 minutes of that style of basketball, we’ll need 10 to 12 players.”
Brubacher was quick to differentiate up-tempo basketball from careless basketball.
“To play faster-paced basketball and expect more turnovers because of the speed isn’t acceptable,” he said.
“Some of the best teams we’ve had here at Tabor played very up-tempo, but still held their turnovers to single digits, which is our goal for each game.”
Brubacher said it appears his team’s strength will be speed; he is most concerned about rebounding.
“Rebounding is one aspect of the game that is actually determined more on determination than any other factor,” he said. “We lost many games last year because of our lack of rebounding.”
Brubacher said, as usual, the team’s primary goal is to win a conference championship and earn a trip to the national tournament.
“It’s the same goal every year,” he said. “It’s become the expectation, to some extent.”
Brubacher said the impact of losing Micah Ratzlaff and a strong senior class remains to be seen.
“In some cases, when a team loses a really strong player, the team suffers from a lack of confidence,” he said. “In other situations, more players accept more responsibility.
“The pressure is split between more players, and you actually get to be a more balanced and rounded team.”
If preseason predictions are to be met or exceeded, Brubacher said it’s clear what must transpire.
“We need to rebound well, and we have to execute our offense,” he said.
“We have people at every position who can score, but we have to create opportunities to enable our players to get high-percentage shots.”
Brubacher said coaching basketball at Tabor College extends well beyond the court.
“We try to teach the game to allow players to more than maximize their abilities,” he said. “Being able to contribute to the total team effort, and to positively respect each individual on the team, leads to making the team better as a whole.
“All players abilities are different,” he added. “The team should be stronger than the individual parts because weaknesses are negated by team efforts, and the strengths are accentuated by the team concept.
“I hope my players learn about themselves and about teammates and not just about the game,” he said.
“It’s about their lives-what we do has unending lessons for marriage relationships, work relationships and everything we do here is built on Christian values and principles.”
Brubacher said he hopes these lessons will be absorbed by his players.
“I hope they finish the year with a clear feeling it’s just been a great joy to have played as a team and to have done as much or even more than we had hoped to,” he added.
“I hope the players finish the season with the confidence they gave their best effort, worked hard at their game, and gave their utmost to themselves and their coaches.”