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Last season, everyone on the Lakeland College men's basketball team was enrolled in a new course offering the Woltzen Gymnasium - up-tempo basketball 101.
This season, second-year head coach Kyle Brumett has several new faces on the roster ready for their first taste of the Muskies' need for speed, but he's banking on a solid group of returnees, led by five seniors, to help the Muskies shift into a new gear.
"I expect us to be better at the pace we're going to play," said Brumett, who guided Lakeland to a 16-11 finish last season, 12-6 (tied for third place) in the inaugural season of the Northern Athletics Conference. "We have seven returnees who have played this style that had never played at this pace before. You can already tell they are a lot more comfortable and they understand what I'm trying to get them to do."
The Muskies won nine of their last 11 games a year ago, and this year's team hopes to open with that same momentum. A lot of that will revolve around Lakeland's five seniors: guards Kris Saiberlich (6-foot, Fond du Lac/Fond du Lac) and Aaron Regal (5-10, Suring/Suring) and forwards Danny Ehnert (6-5, Sussex/Arrowhead), David Hoerres (6-4, Waterford/Waterford) and Shane Grube (6-4, Sheboygan/North).
"Everything, not only this year but last year, has been predicated on their commitment and dedication to our program," said Brumett of his seniors. "There is a lot of difference in their personalities and their games, but all five of those guys have really shaped where we are, and, hopefully, where we're going to go."
Saiberlich, a three-time first team all-conference honoree, and Ehnert will both be four-year starters when the Muskies open the season this November.
"That's really rare on any level to have guys that can step into the starting lineup as freshmen, plus they have been captains for two years," Brumett said. "Both of those guys have really worked on their game, and going into this year, they are completely different players than when I got here a year and a half ago."
Ehnert has led Lakeland in rebounding the past two seasons after beginning his Lakeland career as a perimeter player. He was also second on the team in assists a year ago, showing his versatility.
"Danny has been able to do everything that we've asked," Brumett said. "He's going to play a lot of different roles for us, and we usually ask him to defend the other team's best player. Rarely will you find a guy that leads a team in rebounds and is also second on the team in assists, but that's the kind of player he is."
Saiberlich is one of the program's most recognized and respected players, having earned all-conference honors for three straight seasons thanks to his deadly range from behind the 3-point line, his solid free throwing shooting and his tireless passion for the game.
"In my short time here, with a stat like that (his all-conference honors), he's going to leave here as one of the best players to ever play at Lakeland, and definitely one of the best shooters," Brumett said. "I expect that everyone will see he's more than just a shooter this year because he's worked hard on his passing, ball handling and defense. He was our leader last year, and he will continue to be our team leader again this year."
Regal replaced Germayne James, the conference player of the year in 2005-06, at point guard last season and quickly let everyone know the job was in capable hands. He averaged double-figures scoring and was second in the NAC in assists.
"Point guard became the most reliable and stable position on our team," Brumett said. "Aaron has the ball in his hands in our offense 90 percent of the time, so if something good is going to happen at the pace we play he has to play well. He went from no pressure as a sophomore to all the pressure as a junior, and it has been a very good transition."
Brumett said much of Lakeland's success this season will revolve around its senior guards.
"Guard play is going to win games for us," Brumett said. "In my opinion, we have two of the best guards in the conference; now they have to go out and prove me right. Last year we were more focused on throwing the ball in the post. We're still going to do that, but our perimeter guys have to make plays and win games for us."
Hoerres and Grube have both embraced their roles, Brumett said, and deliver by holding themselves accountable.
"David is undersized, but his effort and determination are as good as anyone in our group," Brumett said. "He is one of our better defenders and he's constantly asked to guard bigger guys. We need him to rebound and keep the other teams' best rebounder off the glass.
"Shane's a sniper. Playing alongside two all-conference players, he's going to be open and he has to make shots and be an offensive weapon for us. He had some really big games for us last year, and we're hoping that carries over to more of that this year."
Brumett concedes that the biggest question mark entering the season is the team's unproven post play. The Muskies lose Tyrone Coleman (graduation) and Matt Rogers, an all-conference player who decided not to return to Lakeland. The minutes will get gobbled up, in part, by junior forward Pete Worth (6-2, Sheboygan/North) and sophomore center Sean Walker (6-7, Strum/Eleva-Strum), who transferred to Lakeland at semester last season from UW-La Crosse.
"Pete is a physical, aggressive forward, and will be the captain of our defense," Brumett said. "We expect to be better defensively as a team than a year ago, and we're playing a few more guys that can do a better job defensively. Our system is built around ball pressure and defense, and those are the things that define Pete's game.
"Sean didn't play a lot last year, but he did get a chance to figure out the system. He used practice time to identify the things he needed to work on to make himself a more complete college post player. He's one of our question marks, but he's a very hard worker who now has an opportunity to get on the floor and show what he can do."
Another returnee for the Muskies is sophomore guard Phil Sontag (6-0, Altoona/Altoona), an emotional player that delivered some clutch performances last season.
"Phil's success depends on his understanding and accepting his role, which is a very important one," Brumett said. "He's one of our better perimeter defenders. He needs to do the things he did well last year and build on that. He brings a lot of energy to our team and he's a great teammate, which is always important to a coach."
The Muskies have nine new faces on the roster, which has given some much-needed depth to practices and, Brumett is hoping, to his game rotation. Khendal Andrews (5-9, Kankakee/Bradley-Bourbonnais), a sophomore transfer from Kankakee (Ill.) Community College, headlines the newcomers and will provide Regal with a quality backup at point guard.
"We didn't have the depth last season that we needed to develop or play other guys, and that really hurt us in practice," Brumett said. "As a result, we didn't improve at the rate I would have liked us to. This season, practices have been night and day because our new guys are really pushing our older guys. It's too early to tell exactly who's going to make the biggest impact in games, but they are all impacting our practices."
Lakeland is facing a challenging schedule both in the NAC and in its non-conference lineup. Despite last season's strong finish, the Muskies were tabbed tied for fifth in the NAC preseason coaches' poll, mainly because the NAC is top heavy with talented teams. Preseason favorite Aurora is ranked in the top 20 nationally in two preseason polls, Edgewood and Dominican both return the bulk of their lineup following strong outings last season and Milwaukee School of Engineering, a familiar face from the Lake Michigan Conference, makes its NAC debut this winter with a talented team.
The Muskies open the season with UW-La Crosse, which returns three starters from a team that won 19 games (including a win over Lakeland) and advanced to the title game of the state league tournament. Lakeland has a date at UW-Stevens Point, the nation's No. 2 rated team in the preseason, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
"On paper, we lost about 25 points a game, and I'm sure people are looking at that wondering how we're going to replace that," Brumett said. "I'm looking at that too. Aurora is the cream of the crop in our league, and we like to think we're in that next lump of teams that includes Edgewood, Dominican, MSOE and Wisconsin Lutheran.
"Edgewood finished second in the league last year and they were 9-0 at home - that's what it is going to take to be successful in the conference. You have to squeak out some road wins where you can, and win your home games."