WINONA LAKE – Grace’s men’s basketball team is ready to bounce back after a disappointing season, armed with a wealth of scorers and a fresh injection of talent for the 2018-19 season.
Head coach Jim Kessler, entering the 42nd year of his legendary NAIA Hall of Fame career, was excited to “pick up where we left off last year.” The Lancers started last season sluggish but played their best basketball at the end.
Over the last month of the regular season, Grace won five Crossroads League matches including upsets of Spring Arbor and Mt. Vernon Nazarene. Additionally, Grace lost two other games in overtime to ranked opponents.
Four of Grace’s top-five scorers from last year are returning. Seniors Logan Godfrey and Tim Swanson are geared up for strong senior seasons. Godfrey posted 15.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last year while shooting 55 percent from the floor. Swanson is a leader and a sharpshooter who has made 37 percent of his career 3-pointers.
“Logan has really developed into an outstanding big man, and both of these seniors are smart players who provide great off-the-court leadership as well,” Kessler said.
Sensational sophomores Matt Jennings and Haden Deaton return to the starting lineup after averaging double-digit scoring in their freshman campaigns. Jennings’s total of 13.2 points per game was second on the team, and Deaton scored 10.4 points to go along with 4.2 rebounds per game.
Juniors Braxton Linville and Jaret Sons are also back with plenty of big-game experience. Linville has been Grace’s starting point guard for two seasons, and Sons ended the year by scoring in double figures for seven straight games.
Other returners include: juniors Charlie Warner and David Holden and sophomores Martin Schiele, Cody Holmes and Sam Miller.
Four new faces join Grace’s team this winter. Noel Mpie is a 6-foot-7 forward from Cameroon. The quick, athletic freshman has a variety of offensive moves already in his arsenal and can make an immediate impact on the defensive end.
Eddie Gill IV is a 6-foot-1 guard from Carmel. He is poised to play key minutes this year due to his ability to defend multiple positions with energy. “Teams will remember him. He can transform a breakaway, and he’s such a tough defender,” Kessler noted.
Joseph Smith (Central HS, Pennsylvania) and Tyce Frank (Oak Hill HS) are 6-foot-5 wings, giving Grace a number of looks on both ends of the court.
Grace’s offense was dynamic in 2017-18, averaging nearly 82 points per game. But the Lancers struggled on the defensive end. Grace yielded over 84 points per game last year, and teams shot 50 percent for the season against Grace.
Kessler is determined to change that in 2018-19. He has initiated a complete overhaul of the Lancers’ defensive philosophy, focused on pressure.
Grace’s ability to adapt to its new defense will “undoubtedly be a key to the year,” in Kessler’s mind. “We can play offense, but we need to have an edge in how we defend. Our league is so good that we can’t simply be a good offensive team. The only way we can neutralize our opponents is to play better defense.”
To reach its defensive potential, Grace will need to have complete buy-in from the Lancers, according to Kessler. He was adamant that Grace’s positive team culture would help the team develop game-winning habits.
The challenge of the Crossroads League is nothing new to those who have followed the Lancers. The conference has had either a champion or national runner-up in the NAIA during five of the past nine years.
The NAIA Top 25 Preseason Poll acknowledged the conference’s strength with five teams ranked in the Top 25 — exactly one-fifth of the NAIA poll. But the Lancers are prepared for the grind and are eager for a return up the league standings.
“Every game is a challenge, certainly in our league. But these guys aren’t afraid of anyone. They’ll go out and get after it,” Kessler said. “I’m looking for an improved year, and the men are determined to move forward.”
The Lancers start the season at home this weekend with the Lancer Tipoff Classic. Grace’s first game is Friday at 8 p.m. against Miami-Hamilton.