The men’s basketball team at Grace College, Winona Lake, Ind., will look different in nearly every way this winter under head coach Jim Kessler.
After graduating five players, including four starters, nearly half of the Lancers’ roster (5 of 12) are freshmen.
Kessler, entering the 40th season of his legendary coaching career, recognizes the dangers of a young squad. But he was also optimistic of the talent level.
“I’m probably as unclear about this season as I’ve ever been at this stage, but I’m positive at the same time,” he said. “We are going to be young, but our rookies have the potential to be really good. It’s a totally different team.”
Kessler believes the team’s shooting will be its primary strength this year. As a result, Grace will employ a faster attack than in previous years to create more shots.
In preseason work, Kessler noted that Grace’s hot shooting has caused him to recalibrate every shooting drill to make it tougher. So far, “they’ve made or exceeded every contest,” he said.
Leading Grace’s returners is Erik Bowen, who shot 55 percent from the floor last year and averaged 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. The rugged junior forward ended the year fourth in the nation with 17 double-doubles.
The Lancers’ newcomers will need to contribute right away for Grace to realize its potential. Braxton Linville will be trusted at the point guard position after a stellar career at nearby NorthWood High School. Kessler lauded Linville’s competitiveness and ability to make plays at key moments.
Jaret Sons, a 6-foot-7 forward from Rushville, also figures to play an important role. Sons boasts a true inside-outside skill set with the ability to shoot the 3-pointer at a high clip or score in the paint. He “thinks like a guard but looks like a forward” in Kessler’s words.
Charlie Warner is another versatile, athletic wing who has potential to be a matchup problem for defenses. David Holdenand Ian Kissell both enjoyed tremendous success in high school, and Martin Schiele will sit the year as a redshirt.
“Our rookies all come from winning programs. They believe they can win, and they’re willing to do what is needed to get there,” Kessler said.
One area where Grace will need to beef up is on the defensive end. In Kessler’s eyes, the team’s offense is far ahead of the team’s defense so far in preseason.
Grace’s success in recent years has largely been from its ability on defense to make the opposition uncomfortable. The Lancers have been mainstays on the Crossroads League All-Defensive Team, including 2015-16 Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Vanderhegghen.
Kessler maintained that for Grace to make noise at the national level, the Lancers will need to improve their defense to match their shooting touch.
“My fear is that we will be at the mercy of our shooting percentage. To beat good teams, we’ll have to defend better than where we are at right now. Our shooting right now is good enough to win, so the jury is still out,” he said.
Maneuvering through the Crossroads League is always a challenge, especially considering last year’s NAIA title game featured two league teams. But Kessler is hoping that Grace’s unity, along with the team’s mantra of “winning each day” will carry the Lancers through the ups and downs of a long basketball season.
The Lancers have already demonstrated considerable camaraderie in the first weeks of practice. With a strong core of upperclassman leadership and an eager crop of rookies, Grace has high hopes for the future.
“This could be a really fun team. The men want to be good as a collective unit,” Kessler said. “If a team can play together and play hard, they will be competitive in every game. At this point, we’ve done that. The goal is to get better and win each day.”
The Lancers will start the season on Oct. 28-29 at home with the Tip Off Classic.