The Lancers, fresh an NAIA Sweet Sixteen appearance and a 23-13 record last year, have a strong leadership core this winter. Statistically, Grace returns nearly 70 percent of its production from 2014-15 thanks to the senior class.
All-American point guard Logan Irwin highlights the class. He averaged 13.6 points and 4.4 assists per game, leading the Crossroads League with a plus-4.5 assist-to-turnover ratio in league games.
Brandon Vanderhegghen had a breakout junior year, tallying 11.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Forwards Kyle Fillman (6.6 ppg) and Caleb Featherston (4.9 ppg) bring experience to the frontcourt, and Drew Perrin has been a steady presence in the guard rotation.
In his 39th season in charge of the Lancers, Kessler marveled at the senior class’s dedication and cohesion.
“These guys are such close friends that they don’t talk to each other on the court. They just assume what the other person is doing,” Kessler said. “They’re still improving which is important. They spent countless hours in the gym this summer; I had to tell them to take a day off. Some teams look back with regret, but this group can walk away from this year knowing that they gave their best and prepared for the season.”
Grace has traditionally had a towering post player for the better part of the last decade. This year, however, the Lancers will be driven by their guard play. Grace will be more “perimeter-oriented,” in Kessler’s words. The Lancers will need to use their fastbreak attack to get easy baskets and also capitalize on their outside shooting.
During the 2014-15 season, Grace made 35 percent of its 3-point shots. Four returners made over 36 percent from beyond the arc—Irwin, Vanderhegghen, Chad Hoffer and Stephen Halstead.
The team is prepared to run the floor, and the collective level of conditioning is there to match that desire. Kessler put the Lancers through what he called a “historically tough” conditioning workout. Every player met the challenge, however. “Our younger players have followed the leadership of the older guys. They don’t want to come off the court, even at practice. That’s a good team if you have to hold them back. We’ll need to learn how to work smarter rather than harder this year.”
On the defensive end, Kessler noted Grace’s need to guard as a collective unit. Rather than funneling opposing teams to a big man as in years past, the Lancers will work to limit penetration in the lane. “I think we can score without a center, but defensively we don’t have that big to stop drives. We’ll have to be creative in how we defend.”
Fillman and Featherston lead Grace’s post rotation. Sophomore Erik Bowen played in all 36 games last year, and Eric Miller and John Swanson bring depth and strength to Grace’s interior. Freshman Logan Godfrey (Snider HS) has shown promise in the preseason as an athletic 6-foot-7 forward, and redshirt freshman Mike Warren adds muscle and inside scoring.
The guard rotation will center around Irwin and Vanderhegghen. Hoffer had a strong freshman campaign, providing 5.6 ppg as a spark off the bench. Halstead made 43 percent of his 3-pointers, and junior Tre Olive brings a defensive intensity to the guard position.
A pair of sharpshooting freshmen join Grace in the backcourt. Josh Ruggles (Wheaton Warrenville South, Ill.) is a world-record holder for 3-pointers and was All-State in Illinois. Tim Swanson (Warsaw) is a local 3-point specialist who shot 45 percent from beyond the arc during his high school career.
Kessler has arranged a challenging nonleague schedule, which includes road trips to Iowa and California as well as a neutral-site matchup against IU-Southeast at the NBA Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Dec. 11.
“It’s going to be a fun year because the guys love playing together, and they’ll do what we ask them. I’m really looking forward to working with these young men,” Kessler said. “We want to play as hard as we can for as long as we can, and then we give the glory to Christ. We should be able to achieve that every game.”
The Lancers will start their season at home on Oct. 31 against Wilberforce.