But the conference media and coaches were at best unfamiliar with the crew of returners, freshmen and transfers that Micah Ratzlaff has assembled heading into his first year.
“The sky is the limit for this team,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s just a matter of how fast we can put the pieces together.
“I think our team has a lot of potential, but I don’t know if our guys realize that yet,” he added.
In Don Brubacher’s 25th and final year, the team posted a 12-18 overall record that included a 9-9 conference mark that was good enough for fourth place in the KCAC.
Without the dominate guards who led the Bluejays to a double-overtime win against Sterling in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, the pollsters’ view of the team likely would have dipped regardless of the coaching change.
Leading a team taking its first steps is a challenge that 5-foot, 8-inch junior transfer Aaron Whitelaw has shown considerable flair for in the early going.
“Aaron is a big-time athlete—the most athletic point guard in our conference, hands down, and I’d like to talk to any coach that says different,” Ratzlaff said.
“Aaron’s got a lot of ability—he’s so athletic and he’s very quick and he handles the basketball very well,” he added.
“He’s a very vocal point guard, and he runs on a lot of emotion. I don’t know where we would be without him. He’s the guy who leads this basketball team.”
Zach Vanselow—a 6-8 junior transfer forward out of Papillion, Neb., via Hamilton Community College—will be counted on to control the paint.
“He’s a very active post player who can run the floor, and we need him to play a really large role for us, offensively and defensively,” Ratzlaff said. “He’s obviously long and he can really block some shots, and we’re working with him rebounding and post defense.”
Three more transfers flank Whitelaw on the perimeter and Vanselow on the low block: Orson Thomas, Mike Rousell and Jason Hett.
Thomas, a 6-2 sophomore from Granada, arrives after a season at East Central University, where he and Ratzlaff met.
“Orson Thomas is unbelievably strong and unbelievably athletic—he’s another guy where it’s like ‘show me another guy in our conference who is more athletic,’” Ratzlaff said. “He’s a guard-post mix and his strengths are getting to the rim and rebounding.”
It is no coincidence that Thomas’ path to Hillsboro mirrors the path that Munroe followed from the Caribbean to the heartland a year ago.
“It’s not easy for us to bring in international players, but we were able to with Orson,” Ratzlaff said.
“He kept in contact with me and with Greg Munroe—and Greg’s good experience here helped us bring Orson in.”
While not as tall or as polished as Munroe, Thomas has a similar upside.
“He has huge upside—he’s only been playing American basketball for three years,” Ratzlaff said.
Rousell, a 6-3 sophomore from Copperas Cove, Texas, spent a season at Rainy River Community College before making the move to Tabor.
“Mike Rousell is a high-energy, high-intensity guy—that’s his strength—and he’s our best defender,” Ratzlaff said.
Hett, formerly a guard at Marion High School, is one of four Marion County players on the roster.
“He’s a guy who hasn’t played a lot of college basketball, and the more more he plays, the better he’s going to get,” Ratzlaff said. “He can handle the ball, he can defend and he can really shoot it.”
Senior guard Caleb Good and sophomore guards Dustin Burnett and Kyle Kroeker gained their scholastic experience at Peabody, Centre and Hillsboro, respectively, before choosing Tabor.
“Caleb has been playing a lot lately with Kyle out of the lineup,” Ratzlaff said.
Kroeker sustained a leg injury in the second game of the Sterling Classic.
“I’m not at all scared to throw Caleb into any game in any situation, even though he hasn’t played a lot of minutes,” Ratzlaff said.
“Over the weekend, he made probably the biggest shots out of anybody. He can step into any situation and be under control and a good leader for our team.”
Ratzlaff noted that Burnett “can really shoot.”
Kroeker, a sophomore guard, is one of two returners who filled major roles for last year’s varsity and will be leaned on for a strong contribution.
“Kyle is a very intelligent basketball player—he’s a fearless, smart basketball player, and he has to be to compete with guys who are stronger than he is,” Ratzlaff said.
Senior forward Mike Stoecker is the only starter returning from last year’s lineup and will, along with Good, be tasked with providing leadership to a very young roster.
“Mike Stoecker is another vocal leader for this team,” Ratzlaff said. “He’s a solid player and our hardest worker—he’s not always the biggest guy or the best athlete on the floor, but he will outwork anybody he’s up against.
“He’s a good free throw shooter, he can rebound, he can hit jumpers, he knows where to be when someone penetrates and he can make a three if we need it,” Ratzlaff noted. “He’s a good all-around player, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
Kyle De Blonk and Jordan Funk have contributed significantly to the team’s overall depth and will only see their respective roles growing as the season progresses.
“Both of these freshmen were highly recruited in the conference,” Ratzlaff said. “They’re both really solid basketball players.
“Jordan is making strides. He played the post in high school and he’s playing the wing for us, and that’s a big adjustment.
“To learn a new position at a higher level, and to be thrown in with the varsity is a big challenge.
“But Jordan Funk is a smart player who makes shots, and guys like that give you a chance to win the game.
“De Blonk is a tough kid. He’s a very aggressive in-your-face point guard.
“He’s not as gifted athletically as Aaron is, but he’s a very good passer who sees the court well.
“It’s a good mix, having Aaron as a guy who scores on his own and Kyle as a guy who can set up a shot for a teammate.”
De Blonk is a 5-10 guard from Emporia and Funk is a 6-4 forward from Wichita.
As for team strengths, the Bluejays have shown flashes of their ability while trying to establish their core identity.
“We’ve got to get up and down the court and we’ve got to play to our strengths—especially our athleticism—and we can be a fast team and a really good defensive team,” Ratzlaff said. “But we’re still trying to get our guys to buy into what we’re saying.”
A strong early non-conference schedule has not been kind to the Bluejays. Tabor has gone 2-5 through the opening games.
“It’s one of the strongest non-conference schedules Tabor has ever played,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s hard, because we have all these new guys, and nobody likes to lose.
“But by the middle of conference play, I think the guys will be able to look back and say ‘that schedule did make us tougher and it did bring us together.”
Tabor faces Bethany in its conference opener at 8 p.m. Thursday in Hillsboro.