Fort Lewis College men’s basketball hasn’t played its first game yet, but the team is already beat up and going through some growing pains.
Skyhawks’ fourth-year head coach Bob Pietrack knows winning in Division II basketball is about having seniors, and his team lost six from last year’s squad that won the regular season Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship and reached the NCAA South Central Regional tournament for a third consecutive season under the leadership of Pietrack and associate head coach Daniel Steffensen.
FLC reloaded with nine new players, including seven transfers. While the Skyhawks have plenty of talent, getting it all to mesh together will be key during the first month of the season that will begin at 12:30 p.m. Friday against Eastern New Mexico University at the home of the University of New Mexico Lobos – “The Pit” in Albuquerque.
Friday’s game is the first step in the long road to defending a title that will be even more difficult to win this year, as the RMAC continues to get better and added perennial regional contender Dixie State to the conference and FLC’s division this season.
“I’ve always said the gelling of a basketball team is like cooking a big-time dinner – it takes all day,” Pietrack said. “This is going to take a process. We’re going to be a work in progress through the month of November with the date of Dec. 1 at Adams State when we start league play of really trying to hit our stride.
“To have this many new guys, to lose six seniors off our championship team and think that we’re going to be what we can be on Nov. 1 would not be logical.”
While FLC has six players back who logged minutes last year, only three have played significant time for the Skyhawks: All-RMAC senior Marquel Beasley, senior captain Alex Semadeni and junior forward Riley Farris. They will all play predominant roles on the team this year, with Beasley and Semadeni serving as true leaders of the new-look ’Hawks.
Beasley knows what it’s like to be a junior college transfer. He joined FLC last year from Iowa Western Junior College and put up a spectacular season. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound forward from Rock Island, Illinois, averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. An aggressive player, Beasley found ways to stay out of foul trouble the second half of the season and put the team on his back with explosive play several times en route to the regular-season championship.
“I think he’s the best player in the RMAC, and I think he’s got a lot to prove this year,” Semadeni said. “I’m just excited to see him and for everyone else to see him because he’s been crazy in the gym.”
Beasley said he has taken personal responsibility to help this year’s transfers find their footing at FLC.
“I know we got a lot to work on,” he said. “It’s good to be back on the floor, but we got a whole new team. Me, as a senior, I gotta lead these guys to get where we want to be at the end of the day. I’m trying to get them to buy into the team chemistry and get us going to get ready for the tough conference we got coming up.”
Semadeni, a 6-5 senior from Fort Collins, will get a chance to play more guard this season, which is his natural position. He’s played more small forward in years past at FLC.
A high-energy player with a knack for making the big play, Semadeni has averaged 7.6 points and more than four rebounds per game as a bench player. This year, he will likely be in the starting rotation.
Though he’s nursing an early-season shoulder injury, Farris has a chance to be an offensive game changer for the Skyhawks on any given night. He’s averaged 8.4 points per game off the bench his first two seasons at FLC, but he’s shown an ability to be a double-digit guy on a nightly basis when healthy.
“It’s definitely hard to see the guys on the floor because I want to be out there with them,” Farris said. “I’ll get some good opportunities this year to show myself a little more and hopefully help this team come around. Everyone here wants to work hard, and I think we’ll be fine.”
Farris isn’t the only player that’s been limited by injury. The team’s projected starting point guard AJ Sparks, a junior transfer, has been limited all preseason by a back injury. The Skyhawks got him back Thursday for practice at The Pit ahead of Friday’s game and could play him in Friday’s opener.
“Right now, a lot of guys are competing for that starting point guard spot,” Semadeni said. “We’ve seen a lot of good reps from guys there. As the season goes on, I’m comfortable with whoever takes that spot eventually.”
While FLC has plenty of options to mix-and-match at guard with the all-around ability of junior transfer guard Kevin Biggs, the 3-point shooting of junior transfer Kireed Johnson, junior transfer Dwayne McNutt and returning players such as Cesar Molina and Mike Ranson, Pietrack is excited about the team’s ability to play a bigger lineup this year.
Senior transfer Otas Iyekekpolor, a 6-8 forward who transfered from Division I Central Arkansas, gave the team 10 points and nine rebounds in an exhibition at Northern New Mexico, and he can be paired with Beasley, Farris and Semadeni on the floor for a long and tall look. The team is also excited about 6-foot-5 sophomore transfer Will Wittman out of Otero Junior College and 6-foot-9 true freshman Brendan La Rose from Peyton.
“We will play bigger this year than we have in the past with the way the roster is constructed,” Pietrack said. “To win in big games, you gotta be able to rebound, and we’ve learned that throughout the years. We’re hoping a bigger lineup can help us rebound the ball better, but, in the end, it’s about effort. This group is a special group as far as attitude goes. We have special people here. We will be a work in progress for a while, but this team has great potential.”