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2017-18 PREVIEW: Lancers ready to build on foundation

WINONA LAKE, Ind. – Grace’s men’s basketball team is ready to erase the memories of last year’s 15-20 season with an exciting array of talent in 2017-18.

The Lancers, whose last losing season was 14 years ago, combine strong upperclassman leadership along with one of the most talented freshman classes in program history under head coach Jim Kessler.

Kessler, in the 41st season of his NAIA Hall of Fame career at Grace, was pleased with the makeup and quality of his squad — both in terms of character and talent. 

Despite the possibility of starting multiple underclassmen this year, the Lancers return an experienced squad. Eight of the top-10 rotation players are back for Grace, led by seniors Erik Bowen and Stephen Halstead.

Bowen was a double-double machine in the post for Grace. The All-Crossroads League forward averaged 15.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, leading the league in rebounding. Halstead enjoyed a career-best season with 10.2 points per game, shooting 43 percent from the 3-point line.

Juniors Logan Godfrey and Tim Swanson provide additional leadership as a hard-working duo. Godfrey was the No. 2 rebounder in the league last year behind Bowen at 8.3 per game, and his scoring took a tremendous jump from 3.4 points per game as a freshman to 12.4 last year. He has the ability to become “one of the best post players in our league,” according to Kessler.

Sophomore Braxton Linville was Grace’s starting point guard in 2016-17 and produced 152 assists, and Jaret Sons, Charlie Warner and David Holden each gained valuable experience last year as freshmen.

Sons, a 6-foot-7 forward, had a “great summer” in Kessler’s eyes and is coming into his own as a matchup nightmare. Warner and Holden add length and versatility to the wing rotation.

The freshman class features five players: Haden Deaton (McCutcheon), Matt Jennings (Logansport), Martin Schiele (Griffith), Cody Holmes (Northfield) and Sam Miller (Warsaw).

Deaton and Jennings were both All-State players in high school, marking the first time in Kessler’s remembrance of having two big-school, All-State freshmen together. Deaton is a burly 6-5 forward who Kessler noted is going to be “hard to keep off the court.” Deaton is a strong rebounder with the shooting range to stretch opposing defenses.

Jennings is a “premier scorer,” in Kessler’s words. The 6-foot guard has elite speed and is fearless in scoring. “Matt can become a premier defender. When that happens, he will become a premier player,” Kessler said.

Holmes is the tallest Lancer at 6-8 and has produced well in preseason, and Schiele, a speedy point guard, is entering his first season after redshirting last year due to injury.

For the Lancers to reach their potential this winter, Kessler recognized the team must improve on defense. While Grace’s offense was efficient enough to win games, they struggled on the other end. In league games, the Lancers ranked last in scoring defense by yielding 84 points per game.

Kessler estimated that the Lancers have practiced defense for an hour during every preseason workout to help rectify that stat.

“Last year we didn’t defend with the same kind of tenacity that a veteran team does, which is typical of young teams,” Kessler said. “The points you score will get you recognition and awards, but defense will get you wins. It’s not an easy transition defensively from high school to college, but the men are working hard right now on that end of the floor.”

Kessler commended his players for their tenacity during the course of a grueling preseason, both on and off the court. In the classroom during the first session this fall, Grace put together a combined 3.58 GPA as a team. Kessler believes that the Lancers’ dedication and commitment to the daily grind will positive positive results this year.

“We’ve built a foundation last year, and we’ve positioned ourselves for a strong season if we can come together,” Kessler said. “We are focused on winning each day this season. If we can win the day, the wins on the court will add up. I’m looking forward to getting started.”

The Lancers’ season debut is Tuesday on the road at Lawrence Tech. Grace then returns home on Friday and Saturday for the Lancer Tipoff Classic. Grace will host Judson on Friday at 8 p.m. and Governors State on Saturday at 1 p.m.