WINONA LAKE – Grace College men’s basketball coach Jim Kessler said in the preseason that this year’s edition of his team would be a work in progress.
The long-time mentor of the very successful Lancers’ program still feels that way 15 games into the 2014-15 campaign.
“I do still feel like we are a work in progress at this point,” said Kessler in a phone interview on Christmas Eve. “We’ve got all the pieces. We just need to put them all together. We need all our parts firing together at the same time.”
“The thing is that we are still getting better and that was one of our goals. These guys are street fighters. They just find a way to win games.”
The Lancers currently sit at 11-4 overall and 1-2 in Crossroads League play. Grace, who is 9-1 at home in the beautiful Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center, started the season at 9-1 before losing three of their last five games. The Lancers, who are currently on a 17-day break for the holidays, have lost 85-80 at No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan University and 74-73 in overtime at home to Goshen College in league play.
Kessler, who notched his 700th career coaching win in the season opener of his 38th season, has seen his team clamp down on defense.
“We’ve been a good defensive team,” said Kessler, whose squad is allowing 63 points-per-game. “We established that early on and the guys have got after it on defense. We just need everyone to get on a groove together shooting the ball.”
Niko Read, one of three seniors, leads the Lancers at 14 ppg. The strong shooting guard also paces his team with 43 treys.
“I’ve been very pleased with Niko’s play,” Kessler remarked. “He’s been solid and he’s playing with confidence.”
Guard Logan Irwin is having a strong all-around season for Grace. The former standout at Whitko High School, who played one season at NCAA Division I Stetson University before playing for the Lancers last year, is averaging 13.2 ppg. Irwin is also first on the team in assists at 5.1 per game and has improved his free throw shooting.
“Logan is our leader and he’s been playing solid for us,” said Kessler. “He knows what needs to happen out on the floor and he’s a great defender. His assists to turnovers are very good and he’s better at the line this year.”
Senior center Dennis Williams has also given Grace a boost in the paint. The 6-11 Williams, who was limited to 23 games last year due to an injury, is averaging 8.8 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds per game.
“It’s been nice for us to have big D back in there,” stated Kessler. “He’s been a solid in there for us.”
The duo of juniors Kyle Fillman (8.4) and Brandon Vanderhegghen (8.3) have also been solid contributors so far.
A pleasant surprise for Grace has been the spark and energy provided by Chad Hoffer. The 6-2 freshman guard helped his Tippecanoe Valley High School team go 16-5 overall and 7-0 in conference play during his prep senior season in 2007-08. Hoffert is averaging almost five points and over two rebounds per game in just 14 minutes per contest.
“Chad has been a pleasant addition to our team and I’ve been really pleased with him,” said Kessler. “He’s versatile and really a team guy. I maybe should have played him more so far this season.”
The Lancers jump right back into the very tough conference slate of games Jan. 3 at Bethel. Grace then plays at Spring Arbor Jan. 6 and hosts St. Francis Jan. 10.
“Teams in our league are so good and know each other so well that they expose your weaknesses,” said Kessler. “In league play, we all knock each other around. It’s going to be a dogfight in every game. If we continue to defend and rebound, we will be competitive in every game.”