WINONA LAKE – There is reason to believe that Grace has not entered an NCCAA National Championship with more motivation to win than this year.
The men’s basketball team is playing for its coach, Jim Kessler, who is retiring at the end of the year. The women’s team is looking to make its mark for first-year coach Dan Davis and the life he is breathing into the program. Both teams are playing at home in front of the home crowds and neither has won an NCCAA basketball title. That’s quite a recipe for a dangerous duo of teams heading into this week’s tourney.
Lancers Hoping To Send Coach K Out A Winner
The title of this piece could not hold more meaning than to what Grace’s basketball team wants to give coach Kessler in his final tournament.
The Lancers come into the NCCAA National Championships at just 16-15 overall, but coming off a 96-87 win Thursday night against Cincinnati Christian in the NCCAA Midwest Regional. Grace comes in battle tested, having played 11 ranked teams this season, but in somewhat of an anomaly, the Lancers are winless in those games, all Crossroads League contests. This week’s tournament will give the No. 5 seed Grace a chance for some redemption against nationally regarded programs, starting with No. 4 Bluefield in the opening round Wednesday.
Grace is 16-4 against non-ranked teams on its slate, and come into the tournament winners of five of its last seven games. The Lancers have had a host of players step up this season, led by the trio of Logan Godfrey, Haden Deaton and Charlie Warner. Godfrey has been consistent all season, leading the team in scoring at 19.9 points per night, with Deaton right behind at 18.7 and Warner at 16.9. The team is scoring over 84 points per game, and has seen valuable contributions from Jaret Sons, Eddie Gill, Braxton Linville and Martin Schiele. Sons is second on the team at over five rebounds a contest and Linville leads the team in assists, helping on 156 buckets.
“Going up against No. 3, No. 13, No. 1 on a week-in, week-out basis has really helped us prepare for this tournament,” said Godfrey, who was chosen to compete in the NAIA All-Star Game later this month. “I think we’re at a level right now where we can compete with anyone. You go on Christmas break playing all those conference games, and it’s a whole different game going conference to non-conference. We’re happy to just see some different teams now, quite honestly.”
Grace, which has finished runner-up in the NCCAA National Championships five times, is making its sixth appearance in the tournament in the past 10 years.
“It’s been a very up and down season, but we’re playing our best basketball right now,” Warner said. “Those two-point losses, the one-possession games, we feel like we can turn that around and be on the other side of that.”
Seniors Set To Make A Statement
As Kessler is riding out in style, Dan Davis is just getting started with the Lady Lancers. In his first year coming in from a long stint with the University of Auburn Montgomery, Davis is enjoying his first year in Winona Lake and has his club playing a new style of ball that he feels will suit its tournament prospects.
Grace also earned a No. 5 seed and is also matched up with Bluefield in a 4-5 game, this one to follow the Parade of Champions with a 7:30 p.m. tip. One asset Davis pointed to the most of anything with his program this year, like Kessler also stated, is the overall strength of the Crossroads League. The Lady Lancers, sitting at 16-15 overall, has proof in the pudding with its seed given its record. Grace’s final five games of the season were against ranked Crossroads opponents, but the team went 2-3 in those games, ending with a tough overtime loss to Indiana Wesleyan in the conference tournament.
“We have the mindset in practice that we go hard no matter what, we’re playing in a national tournament on our home floor,” said senior Brooke Sugg. “Our goal is to win a championship, that’s the mentality for everything we are here to do. This is my last tournament and I want to just have fun. This is one of my favorite parts of the season, the NCCAAs. There’s a lot going on that makes this a special tournament, I just look forward to it.”
Sugg, who is fully active after a junior year scratched to a knee injury, is one of the best players in the Crossroads League, making First Team with team-leading stats of 16.3 points per game and 85 assists. The diminuative guard has nailed 81 threes and set a school record with 40 points against Spring Arbor. Combined with fellow guard Vironnica Drake (14.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), the duo create matchup nightmares for perimeter defenses.
Where Grace has made strides is the development of Kyannah Stull and Kamryn Hostetler, the two averaging over 26 combined points per game in Grace’s last nine games, Stull almost six points higher than her season average. Mix in the floor hustle of Pam Miller and Lexi Minix, and Grace is really starting to come together at the right time.
“Our goal is to be better than the other teams that are practicing right now,” Miller said, one of three seniors on the squad with Sugg and Lauren Godfrey. “We want to be better at the little things that will help us get past that first game. The last few years we lose that first game, then fine, we win the next two and get fifth, but that’s not why we are playing this tournament. We’re playing to win, and that’s what we aim to do.”