WINONA LAKE – Basketball teams can win a lot of games with a great group of seniors.
Basketball teams can also win a lot of games with defense and rebounding.
Anyone who needs proof of that just needs to take a look at the Grace College men’s basketball team.
Coach Jim Kessler’s squad is having another stellar season thanks in large part to a hard-working senior class, its effort on the defensive end and its work on the glass.
The Lancers sit at 14-4 overall and 4-2 in Crossroads League play after notching a huge conference road win at No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan University 91-80 on Saturday.
“I’m pleased with where we are right now,” said Kessler in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’ve learned from every game and the guys have responded well. The key for us is to focus on who we are. That’s our emphasis every day. We have to defend and rebound to win games and we know that.”
The Lancers have definitely defended. Led by its outstanding backcourt of seniors Logan Irwin and Brandon Vanderhegghen, Grace is allowing just 69 points-per-game. The Lancers have also rebounded their foes by 105 caroms, led by Erik Bowen. The 6-6 sophomore from Kokomo is averaging 10.4 rebounds per game to go with 14.2 points-per-contest.
Kessler, who now has 736 wins in his 39th season at Grace, credits his senior class of Irwin, Vanderhegghen, Kyle Fillman, Caleb Featherston and Drew Perrin. Vanderhegghen poured in 26 points and Irwin had 20 in the win at IWU on Saturday.
“Our seniors have been superb for us,” remarked Kessler. “They have come together and they understand and accept their roles. To their credit, they decided as soon as last season ended to give their very best to have a good season this year and they are doing that.
“Logan is the leader. He’s as good as there is at defending on the ball. Brandon is just nasty on defense. He gets after it. He’s just tenacious and persistent. All five of them are just hard workers. I give a lot of credit to Drew too. He leads our White team in practice. You have to have guys like that for your team to get better.”
Grace has won three in a row and six of its last seven games since a 98-76 conference loss at Bethel on Dec. 5. That setback marked three losses in four games at the time for the Lancers, who have bounced back in fine fashion.
“The thing is that we have shot the ball better lately,” said Kessler. “We’ve been pretty good on defense all year. We just had a hard time scoring. The ball’s dropping for us now and that really helps things.”
Vanderhegghen, a 6-1 guard from Mishawaka, has been outstanding. He is averaging 15.7 ppg. and leads his team in 3-pointers (42) and in steals. He was named the NAIA and NCCAA National Player of the Week on Tuesday after averaging 26.5 points and eight rebounds last week in road wins at IWU and at Huntington. He was also honored as the Crossroads League Player of the Week on Monday.
Irwin, who played at Whitko High School, is averaging 14.4 ppg. and leads the Lancers in assists. Fillman, a 6-7 forward who played at Norwell, is at 7.9 ppg. Grace has also gotten solid contributions from freshman guard Josh Ruggles, junior guard Tre Olive, from South Bend St. Joseph, and sophomore guard Chad Hoffer, a former standout at Tippecanoe Valley.
St. Francis, which won 79-77 at Grace on Dec. 2, leads the league standings at 6-1. IWU is at 5-2, followed by Grace (4-2), Bethel (4-3), Marian (4-3), Goshen (3-3), Huntington (3-4), Taylor (3-4), Mt. Vernon (2-5) and Spring Arbor (0-7).
“You just have to stay with it in this conference, prepare every day and understand that you are going to lose at least a couple of games,” noted Kessler.
Kessler, whose team hosts Goshen College tonight in a women’s/men’s conference twin bill, is enjoying every minute with this team.
“It’s the highlight of my day, every day, to work with these guys,” said Kessler. “I’m enjoying it as much as ever.”
An easy thing to do when you have a great group of seniors.