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With a pair of experienced stars returning and the taste of just missing the NCAA Division III National Tournament still in their mouths, the 2012-13 season is one of high expectations for the Lakeland College men's basketball team.
The Muskies are one of the preseason favorites in the Northern Athletics Conference and have two of the top players in the conference. One of those, senior Jake Schwarz (Sheboygan, Wis.) is on pace to break the school's career scoring record. The program's first NCAA Division III National Tournament berth since 2003-04 is in sight.
Lakeland is coming off a 21-7 record last season that included a 12-4 mark in the NAC North Division. The Muskies advanced to the NAC Tournament Championship Game before losing a hard-fought 80-72 decision to Edgewood College, leaving them one game short of advancing to the national tourney.
This season Lakeland has already been picked to finish first in the NAC North in a preseason poll of league coaches. Having a pair of First Team All-NAC returnees in Schwarz and Justin Ward (Jr.-Wisconsin Dells, Wis.) certainly gives the Muskies an edge on opponents, and fifth year coach Aaron Aanonsen welcomes the publicity of being favorites, but also acknowledges it won't change how the team approaches the season.
"I think it is great publicity for our program, anytime you an have an honor like that it's a tribute to our team and what our guys have accomplished in the past," Aanonsen said. "(But) in our program, we hold true to a couple key values, and those are improving every single day, working hard, and trying to peak at the end of the season and play our best basketball then."
Schwarz returns for his final season of wearing out NAC defenders. The 6-5 forward is coming off another fantastic season last year, when he averaged 23.4 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 52.2% from the field, 45.2% from three-point range and 86.7% from the free throw line.
Schwarz enters the season with 1,578 career points. He needs 430 points to tie the school record held by John Koslowski (1980-84), and if he's able to keep a scoring pace similar to his last two seasons he should break the record sometime in January.
Ward also was a first team all-conference selection last year and returns with his unique blend of inside and outside skills. The 6-9 forward averaged 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots per game last year while shooting 54.0% from the field. But Ward also was almost as much of a threat as Schwarz from the outside, hitting 41 of 102 tries from beyond the arc (40.2%).
The third returning starter is James Oshkeshequoam (Jr.-Keshena, Wis.). A 6-3 guard, Oshkeshequoam averaged 9.7 points per game last year and was another excellent three-point marksman, hitting 44 three-pointers and shooting 36.1% from long range, and Aanonsen said he expects him to play an even bigger role this year.
Two starters must be replaced in the backcourt, where Second Team All-NAC point guard Josh Royal and Jack Ridgway have completed their eligibility. Sophomore Joey Burris (Kiel, Wis.) was a key reserve last year, averaging 4.3 points per game, and he will get a crack at starting. Rylee Hernandez (St. Paul, Minn.), a 6-2 senior, and Steve Ross (Milwaukee, Wis.), a 6-0 sophomore, both saw spot action last year and will be valuable players off the bench this season.
Newcomers could also play key roles in the backcourt. Speedy 6-1 sophomore Brandon Ware (Milwaukee, Wis.) is in the running for the starting point guard position. Freshmen Zach Van Engen (Sheboygan Falls, Wis.), Brandon Hagenow (Sussex, Wis.) and Connor Morovits (Prairie du Chien, Wis.) all are players Aanonsen noted will give the team energy and offense off the bench.
Kurt Jansen (So.-Wrightstown, Wis.), a 6-5 forward, will also play a bigger role this season, according to Aanonsen. Others who will figure into the frontcourt include 6-5 seniors Germell Heard (Milwaukee, Wis.) and Eric Strzok (Thorp, Wis.). Heard sat out last season but was key reserve the three seasons prior, including averaging 6.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game as a junior in 2010-11. Strzok played in all 28 games last year as a junior, averaging 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds and blocking 14 shots.
The Muskies were an overwhelming favorite in the NAC North Division in the preseason poll, with Edgewood and Marian University tying for second and Concordia University Wisconsin fourth. Concordia won the division last year, while Edgewood won the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Division III national tourney.