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Armed with a solid group of returnees from a successful 2010-11 campaign, the Lakeland College men's basketball team is eager to begin the 2011-12 season.
The Muskies, who finished third in the Northern Athletics Conference North Division last year with a 10-6 mark, look to finish atop the division this year. An experienced returning group that finished 16-10 overall a year ago and a talented freshman class has the team poised to make its goals a reality.
Fourth-year head coach Aaron Aanonsen is excited about this year's team and hopes to see improvement in the win column. "With this year's group, everyone has the ability to score and it's an exciting moment when every person on the court can make a play," said Aanonsen.
Under Aanonsen's tutelage, Lakeland has made two straight NAC Tournament appearances and has had nine players earn All-NAC recognition. The Muskies have also had three freshman named to the All-NAC Freshman team in the last three seasons.
The Muskies have continuously improved their style of play over the last three years and Aanonsen likes the team's up-tempo and physical play. "We're working hard to increase our level of play and hopefully we can continue to improve," said Aanonsen.
Last year, Lakeland led the NAC in 3-point field goals made (218) and scored 76.0 points per game, five better than the 2009-2010 campaign. The team shot 43 percent from the field and 38 percent behind the arc, which ranked second in the league.
The Muskies will have to stay healthy and adjust to the different styles of play within the conference to make it through the five-month season. The team will look to build on last year's success by depending on senior point guard Josh Regal (Suring) and junior forward Jake Schwarz (Sheboygan).
Schwarz returns after a season-ending knee injury early last year. As a sophomore, Schwarz led the NAC in scoring with 23.1 points per game which was also good enough for sixth in the nation. He garnered first team All-NAC and D3hoops.com All-Midwest Region accolades along with being named to the Inside Wisconsin Sports All-State Hoops DII/III second-team.
"Jake is ready for competition to begin," said Aanonsen. "He's going to see a lot of double teams because of the success he had as a sophomore, but this year we have the pieces around him to be successful. Jake has a knack for scoring and is a facilitator. He undoubtedly makes a positive impact on the court."
Regal was named second-team All-NAC last year and returns as the team's leading scorer (12.9 ppg). He hit a personal milestone by reaching the 1,000-point mark, and he scored a career-high 31 points against Rockford College on Jan. 8, 2011. Regal's 145 assists last season rank eighth best all-time.
"Josh has grown and matured as both a basketball player and a student," said Aanonsen. "He's our leader on the court and has stepped up his game. Josh adds another offensive dimension on the court, which should play nicely for us when Jake is double teamed."
Lakeland will also depend on senior Jack Ridgway (Sioux Falls, S.D.) and sophomores James Oshkeshequoam (Shawano) and Justin Ward (Wisconsin Dells).
Ward garnered All-NAC Freshman team honors last season and returns as the team's leading rebounder (4.6 rpg). The 6-foot-9 forward looks to give Lakeland a physical perimeter presence and will lead the team's rebounding efforts. Ward averaged 9.8 points per game last season.
"Justin had a tremendous second half of the season last year," said Aanonsen. "He's grown into his body and has done a much better job understanding the collegiate game. Hopefully he can take off from where he ended last year."
Oshkeshequoam, who was in and out of the Muskies lineup last year battling injuries, comes back healthy and confident. Aanonsen expects him to carry a greater scoring load and increase his perimeter defensive game. He averaged 3.6 points per game last season.
"James has grown a lot not only in his stature, but his confidence as well," said Aanonsen. "He needs to be a rebounder and continue to improve his game."
Ridgway returns to Lakeland's lineup after averaging 10.7 points per game, which ranked third-best on the team. Last season the 6-foot-4 shooting guard started in 25 games and added a 3-point shooting threat.
"Jack did a great job for us last year," said Aanonsen. "We'll look to him to fill that play-making role again as well as help make the defensive stops."
Senior Eric Vandivier (Mount Prospect, Ill.), junior Eric Strzok (Thorp) and sophomore Stan McKenzie (Racine) also return to the Muskies' lineup.
Vandivier looks to increase his time on the court as the 6-foot-3 guard has taken on a senior leadership role. "Eric has come into his senior year with a great sense of urgency and does all of the little things that make the team better," said Aanonsen.
Strzok worked his way into Lakeland's lineup in the second half of the season and will add a physical presence to Lakeland's inside game this season. "We will look to Eric to give us solid and physical post minutes," said Aanonsen.
McKenzie comes back healthy after missing the last half of the season last year. He averaged 5.0 points per game and grabbed 3.2 rebounds per game in 19 games last winter. "Stan is our glue guy and does the little things that don't fill up on a stat sheet," said Aanonsen.
While the Muskies' returners play an integral role, the freshman class is expected to make a big impact on the court. Aanonsen likes the newcomer's competitiveness and eagerness to learn the team's system. He expects freshmen Joey Burris (Kiel) and Kurt Jansen (Wrightstown) and junior transfer Rylee Hernandez (St. Paul, Minn.) to make a significant impact on the program.
"Joey is a good perimeter shooter," said Aanonsen. "He has the ability to make plays on the offensive end."
Jansen offers another dimension to Lakeland's inside presence, but can also extend the defense with his long-range shooting abilities. "He's a versatile player who can play multiple roles for us," said Aanonsen.
Hernandez, a transfer from Vermilion Community College, is a fundamentally sound player who offers the Muskies another weapon from 3-point range.
Also contributing to the team this season are sophomore Mike Koeppen (Manitowoc) and freshmen Alex Cole (Chippewa Falls), Ryan Kurth (Pleasant Prairie), Danny Wimmer (Slinger), Steve Ross (Milwaukee), Kayeen Corbett (Port Edwards) and Kevin Diggs (Milwaukee).
The Muskies open their 2011-12 campaign on the road against Lake Forest College on Nov. 17. Their home opener is Nov. 22 against Beloit College. Lakeland begins NAC play on Nov. 29 against Maranatha Baptist Bible College.
"Lake Forest and Beloit are two competitive and forceful teams," said Aanonsen. "We hope to use these games to sharpen our game before we head into NAC play."
Over the holiday break, the team travels to the Defiance College Tournament in Defiance, Ohio. and is slated to take on Trine University on Dec. 29. The NAC Tournament begins on Feb. 21 with the top eight teams from both divisions.
"We want to play our best basketball at the end of the season," said Aanonsen. "It doesn't matter how we start the season, it's how we finish. We want to be in the mix playing for the conference championship at the end of February."