Expectations have been restored. Team spirit is at a level to match those expectations.
The Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team reloaded after a disappointing 2018-19 season in which the Skyhawks went 12-16 overall and 7-15 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
That showing came on the heels of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Division II tournament and a pair of RMAC championships in the first three years under head coach Bob Pietrack.
With some lessons learned, Pietrack and associate head coach Daniel Steffensen are ready to restore the Skyhawks to a rightful place in the conference championship conversation.
“We have such a good group of human beings,” Pietrack said. “We have 12 captains. These kids are tremendous. They love each other, they do what they’re asked. I’ve never been part of something like this. It’s a really fun team.
“We feel good about our team, but until the lights go on, you gotta see what happens.”
FLC will get to showcase its retooled roster to Durango fans at 2 p.m. Saturday inside Whalen Gymnasium against Western New Mexico, a key regional game against the Mustangs team from the Lone Star Conference. Then, FLC will face Eastern New Mexico at 4 p.m. Sunday to close out the conference challenge against a pair of the most physical and athletic teams the Skyhawks will face all season.
“It’s just enormous to play at home, especially earlier in the season. It’s an advantage,” Pietrack said. “But it’s only an advantage if you do the little things right that it takes to win ballgames. We have to play with tremendous structure against extremely athletic teams, but it does help to be at home.”
The Skyhawks will host eight consecutive games to begin the season before a conference road trip Dec. 13-14 in South Dakota.
Those eight home games are added to the extra time FLC was able to work together during the offseason thanks to an international trip in August to Costa Rica. FLC went 4-0 on the trip, with games against the national team and Costa Rica’s top pro teams. That chance to bond with so many new players and a different cast of leaders gave the Skyhawks an early look at their potential.
“We got an extra month together, and it’s hard to beat that with a great group of guys,” said FLC junior forward Riley Farris. “Everybody wants to compete, and that’s been clear since we first got together.”
Here’s a closer look at this year’s ’Hawks:
‘A unicorn’Farris is back to lead the Skyhawks as a fifth-year junior. He earned a redshirt his freshman season after he was injured the opening month of the year, and a shoulder injury that required surgery took him out early last season and earned him a medical redshirt.
Two years ago, Farris set a school record when he went 12-of-12 shooting for 31 points in a game at New Mexico Highlands. He was off to an all-conference-caliber start last season with double digits in every game before the dislocated shoulder.
In Costa Rica, Farris showed he was back to his elite scoring ways, and that continued last week when he had 16 points in an exhibition at Northern New Mexico.
“It’s kind of funny. The guys joke with me now about how I was so young and now I’m so old here,” Farris said. “The joke is on me now. For me, this year is about leadership and trying to lead these guys to victory the Fort Lewis way.”
Farris is now the anchor of the team but certainly won’t have to carry the load himself. Still, he figures to be in contention for RMAC Player of the Year by season’s end.
“Riley is a fifth-year junior, which is a unicorn in college basketball,” Pietrack said. “The great thing about Riley is he’s been with coach Steffensen and I the whole time he’s been here. He’s seen us at our highs, seen us at our lows. He knows exactly what is expected of him. He embraces his role, he’s determined to become a better player, and his growth on and off the court is exactly the essence of college basketball.”
The big guysAround 6-foot-9, 245-pound Farris is 6-9, 245-pound sophomore center Brenden Boatwright, 6-9, 210-pount sophomore forward Brendan La Rose and 6-7, 198-pound stretch power forward Danny Garrick, a senior transfer from Division I Nicholls State.
Garrick filled up the score sheet in Costa Rica and has shown his elite 3-point shooting ability. Last season, he made 72 3-pointers, and he made 101 in one season at Central Arizona College as a sophomore.
“It’s relieving knowing we have so many bigs on this team,” Garrick said. “Whoever takes a shot, someone will get a rebound. If the guards or shooters are in trouble, they can pass to the big men. Farris is a big weapon. If we aren’t hitting 3s or doing whatever from outside, we can give it to the big men and they will take care of it for us.”
Boatwright proved he could be a force in the RMAC last season. He has the ability to be a starting center, but as only a sophomore, he is a massive asset to the FLC bench.
La Rose didn’t get a ton of playing time a year ago, but his development on both ends of the floor is evident. He can be a strong rebounder and shot blocker and holds his own defensively in the paint. He can also step out and hit 3-point shots.
“Our roster right now is very versatile,” Pietrack said. “This league, you run into so many styles of play. What you need to do is be as versatile as possible and be able to play different ways. We’ve got two good bigs in Boatwright and Farris, and Garrick is a matchup problem. La Rose is coming into his own. We have a touch of inexperience, but the guys can play.”
Return of the guardFLC has largely played without a true point guard since Will Morse graduated in 2017. After two years without elite ball handlers, FLC has another in junior college All-American transfer Logan Hokanson from Snow College in Utah.
“Logan is just as good as Will was for us, and he’s an even bigger offensive threat for us,” Farris said.
Hokanson is a smart player who knows what to do with the ball, whether it’s his turn to shoot or set up a play and distribute to FLC’s numerous weapons.
“Coming off a pick and roll, I have three bigs I can do anything with,” Hokanson said. “Lob, pick and pop, anything. We’ve also got shooters with (Garrick) and Will Wittman. It’s nice to have them shooters around, too.”
FLC has talented freshman guard Junior Garbrah out of Arizona. He has already proved to be a weapon and made it impossible for the Skyhawks to leave him in street clothes his freshman season. He will come off the bench along with experienced veteran Cesar Molina.
“The most important position at this level, at least, is the point guard,” Pietrack said. “Through injuries last year, we never had enough consistency at that position like we did the previous years. (Hokanson) has the ability to control the game and the pace, and that’s enormous. The other guards, Junior, Cesar and even Akuel (Kot), when he has to do that, we are at a much better place at this time in the season at point guard than a year ago.”
Star in the makingAkuel Kot will have a chance to go down as one of the great players in FLC men’s basketball history. That’s heavy expectations on a freshman in a program with numerous legends, but even all-time leading scorer DeAndre Lansdowne is a believer in the 6-1 freshman from Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, Texas.
Kot scored 18 points to lead FLC in an exhibition win at Northern New Mexico last week and led the team in minutes at nearly 32. He can play shooting guard or the point. No matter where he is on the floor, he’s a threat to score.
“You hate to have too much expectation on anybody that young because you don’t know how they’re going to react to college basketball,” Pietrack said. “But Akuel is proven to be a special player for his age. We’re going to continue to mature him. He’s playing on a team right now where he doesn’t have to be the first option, which is healthy for him. Akuel can be a blend player as he develops and matures.
“There’s no question when people watch Akuel, it will be pretty quickly that they’ll start to realize he’s a special talent, and we’re thankful that he is with us.”
‘Expect big things’After a subpar season, the FLC players want to restore order and give Durango fans a product to be proud of.
“It’s really important to have everybody behind us from the community here and all the fans,” Farris said. “It makes it difficult for any opposing team to come in here.”
When asked what fans will immediately notice about this year’s Skyhawks, the players believe it will be their sense of camaraderie and how hard they will work for each other.
“Everyone loves each other. It’s not like any other program I’ve been at where people fight and people don’t gel,” Garrick said. “This is the best program I’ve been part of. Expect big things from us.”
That can only help during the turbulent road that is the RMAC schedule, with back-to-back games, long road trips and adversity lurking around every corner.
“The RMAC is a beast,” Pietrack said. “There are so many good coaches and excellent players all over the place. It’s hard to say which Division II conference is the best, but I do know this: because of our travel and back-to-backs, I believe ours is the most difficult to navigate through. Mines was picked to win, and some of the city schools have a bit of a distinct advantage with travel, but we also have a distinct advantage with our home crowd and them having to come all the way here.”