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Experienced Saxons poised to move up in Empire 8
11/05/09

ALFRED, NY -- The 2009-10 Alfred University men’s basketball team returns four of five starters from a team that went 8-17 last season. The team’s experience, and added depth, has the Saxons in position to make a run at the team’s first-ever berth in the Empire 8 Conference championship tournament.

As the season approaches, second-year head coach Dale Wellman is focused not on long-term goals, but on seeing steady improvement from his squad.

“Our expectations are similar to last year in that we just want to keep getting better every day,” Wellman said. “We laid a solid foundation last year and we want to keep building on it.”

That foundation includes a quartet of returning starters who each averaged in double figures in scoring. Senior forward Jared Patt (Nelson, PA/Elkland) averaged 12.6 points per game and was the team’s leading rebounder with 5.9 per contest. Senior guard Bobby Barry (Duanesburg, NY/Duanesburg) averaged 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range. Junior shooting guard Mike Stopera (Scotia, NY/Scotia-Glenville) led the team in scoring (13.5 points) while pulling down 3.2 rebounds per contest, and junior point guard Gary Kwiecien (Perry, NY/Perry) averaged 10.5 points and three boards while leading the team in assists (100) and steals (44).

The four will again be counted on to lead the team this season and with the experience they gained last year, should be even better this season.

Kwiecien “has unbelievable energy, handles the ball well and plays within himself and is a great defender. (Stopera) has a great basketball IQ and really understands our offense. He’s improved his shot and takes good care of the basketball,” Wellman said. “As they gained experience last year, their confidence just grew, and as they got acclimated to our system, they just kept getting better.”

Patt, the team’s best defender, will continue to draw the opponent’s best offensive threat. “He was our most important player last year,” Wellman said of Patt, a 6-2 forward who often guarded the opposing post player. “He played out of position all year and still put up the best numbers of his career.”

Barry may be the team’s best outside threat and he’ll continue to get shots from the perimeter. “The way we play offensively fits his game perfectly,” Wellman said of Barry, who he called the team’s vocal leader on the court.

The returnees will welcome the depth provided by a solid recruiting class, plus the healthy return of 6-5 center Bryan Bobo (Ontario, NY/Wayne), who was lost for the year after suffering a foot injury in the last season’s opener. Last year, starters Patt, Barry, Stopera, Kwiecien and 2009 graduate Carl Embury each averaged at least 30 minutes and only one other player, sophomore reserve forward Patrick Hollenbeck (Ontario, NY/Wayne) averaged more than five minutes. This year, Wellman expects to play a regular rotation of nine or 10 players.

“With the added depth, everything will be cleaner and crisper,” he said. “We’ll be fresher at the end of games. And we’ll be able to do more things defensively.”

With no true post players on the roster, the Saxons were forced last year to play a lineup made up of four guards and a forward. As a result, the Saxons were at a significant disadvantage on the boards — AU was outrebounded by more than 10 per game — and was susceptible to second-chance scoring opportunities. Wellman feels that will change with the addition of several new players. “Our rebounding and defense will definitely improve,” he said.

Bobo’s return to the lineup is significant. “He gives us something on offense we didn’t have last year: a post presence,” Wellman said. “The number one thing we want him to be is a great post defender.”

Wellman is counting on Bobo and freshmen post recruits to narrow the rebounding disadvantage from a season ago. Notable new post players include 6-5 freshman Phil Mormon (Fairport, NY/Fairport) and 6-4 freshman Gerald Colas (Houston, TX/Cypress Ridge).

“Mormon is extremely long and very skilled. He can step out on the perimeter and knock down the jumper, or go down low and score in the paint, and he’s a good passer,” Wellman said. “Colas is extremely athletic and can shoot from the perimeter and score around the hoop. He’s a good post defender who we’ll count on to be a solid rebounder.”

Adding depth to the post are sophomore Matt Borsz (Columbia Station, OH/Midview) and freshman Alex Pashchuk (Nicholson, PA/Mountain View).

There’s much more depth this season at the forward position, with four new players competing for time with Patt. Senior Ron Smith (Lyons, NY/Lyons) returns to the team after taking last season off. The 6-3 Smith is an athletic, physical player who Wellman said has picked up the offense well. A pair of freshmen — 6-3 Matt Johnson (Winchester, VA/James Wood) and 6-2 C.J. Russell (Rochester, NY/Gates-Chili) — could see time right away forward.

“We think (Johnson) will be a very good player. He shoots the ball well and can slash to the basket. He’s a good all-around player,” Wellman commented. Russell “is a tremendous athlete who brings something to the table that you don’t see a lot of in the Empire 8. He’s 6-2 but plays two inches taller. He can really rebound and we expect him to play great defense.”

Brett Dennis (Webster, NY/Webster Schroeder) and Jordan Wallenberg (Monroeton, PA/Towanda), both 6-3 freshmen, and Hollenbeck add depth at forward.

The Saxons will have the most depth at guard, as a quartet of freshmen will compete for playing time along with holdovers Barry, Kwiecien and Stopera. Sean Curran (Honesdale, PA/Honesdale), at 6-2, shoots the ball well and is an exceptional distributor of the ball. Tim Costello (Windsor, NY/Windsor), at 5-11, is a tough defender who has exceptional ball-handling and passing skills. Wellman said 6-1 Zach Cooper (Ijamsville, MD/Urbana) may be the best perimeter shooter on the team, along with Barry. Reggie Newsome (Fort Washington, MD/St. Stephens-St. Agnes), at 6-2, is a strong, physical guard. Adding depth to the guard position is 5-11 sophomore Griffin Taylor (New York, NY/Bronx School of Science).

While the Saxons were limited — by lack of depth and injuries — to a six-man rotation last season, Wellman expects nine or 10 players to see meaningful minutes this season. A priority in the preseason has been getting the newcomers adjusted to his complicated offensive system, a task made easier by the presence of four returning starters.

“Right now, we’re concentrating on learning the offense, and it takes a while to get everyone playing as a team. But we also know we need to get better on defense,” Wellman commented. “We’ll be better this year because of our depth.”

Wellman lists one team objective as the season opener — Nov. 15 at home against Penn State-DuBois — approaches. “Our only goal now is to get better every day,” he said.

“I’m excited about the returning players and the promising young players we’ve brought in. We laid a good foundation last year, but we have 11 freshmen who we need to learn the system. We’re paying attention to how we’re performing in practice before we start worrying about other teams.”