By Tom Pfister
The Viterbo men’s basketball team wrapped up their 2013-14 season on Feb. 26, with a record of 16-14—their last game a loss in the Midwest Collegiate Conference (MCC) quarterfinals when the V-Hawks were defeated by Grand View University 73-63. The V-Hawks had a 32-24 lead at the half, but were unable to finish the game ahead of Grand View.
“It is always hard when a team feels that they have the ability to do well and make it far in the playoffs but come up short,” graduating senior, and forward from Eastman, Wis., Cole Lewis told Lumen. “It is never easy, but it can help motivate those still on the team to make it different for the next year.”
Despite the early playoff exit, the squad finished with a record that has improved over the last four seasons. After winning the MCC championship in 2009-10, the team went 6-25 in 2010-11, 11-19 in 2011-12, and 16-15 in 2012-13.
With the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, the V-Hawks are looking to maintain the momentum and improvement they have shown over the last four years going into next season.
With four seniors graduating—Matt Turba, Izac Sheforgen, Cole Lewis and Jasper Duberry—the V-Hawks must attempt to replace the leadership they brought to the program. Turba and Lewis earned MCC all-conference awards this season, scoring 9.8 and 16.1 points per game respectively. Turba also led the team in assists (2.41 assists per game) and steals (2.1 steals per game).
“The team will probably miss the leadership of guys that have been around for so long and been through so many games, but there are also other guys who have the ability to be leaders next year,” Lewis said. They have learned from the leadership of the team this year and have experienced enough to lead the team themselves.”
The V-Hawks will be returning MCC all-conference player David Shepard, who averaged 13.2 points per game and led the team in rebounding (6.5 rebounds per game). Freshman Jake Bamke will be the other returning starter for the V-Hawks.
Assistant Coach Ryan Thibodeau—having recently completed his sixth season with the V-Hawks—has seen first-hand the improvements needed for next season. Their strategy will include an offense tailor-made for the returning players and a tough man-to-man defense.
“We try to accentuate strengths offensively,” Thibodeau told Lumen. “We don’t have a ‘put-out’ player to score whenever we need to stop a run; we rely more on being a team and working off of one another. Defensively, we have always been a top-notch program.”
The V-Hawks do not want to have next season be one that is based on rebuilding and replacement, Coach Wayne Wagner, the V-Hawks head coach for the past 14 seasons, told Lumen. Four years ago, the team dropped to a record of 6-25 after winning a conference championship in 2009-10.
“We hate to feel like we need to talk about rebuilding,” said Wagner. “We hope our underclassmen are experienced enough to avoid a drop-off. We hope they have seen enough competition and know what they need to work on.”
The V-Hawks have worked on strengthening their underclassmen by building a stronger chemistry between the underclassmen and upperclassmen and spending more time in the weight room.
“This group has been really good about committing to becoming better,” Wagner said. “The upperclassmen have shown the willingness to get better each year and to bring the underclassmen with them.”
The readiness of the returning players will be crucial to the team’s success next season. The V-Hawks will be tweaking their offense to accentuate their current players’ strengths and are hoping for a seamless transition, Wagner explained.
“We need to accomplish two things: individual development, such as strength, quickness and athleticism, and a quicker development of chemistry,” Wagner explained. “We need to find opportunities to develop a bond both on and off the court.”
On defense, their man-to-man approach will remain the steady signature of the Viterbo program.
“Our man-to-man defense has been a proven approach for us,” Wagner stated. “It’s rooted in my background.” A former Viterbo basketball player himself, Wagner spent his playing years in a man-to-man defensive approach.
The approach has paid off the last four years, with Viterbo being ranked highly in the country for their scoring defense. The team also led the conference in scoring defense this year.
“Our defense has zone principles with players in help positions,” Wagner said. “When I know our defense is set and right, I hear the other team say ‘they’re in zone, they’re in zone.’”
A challenge for the V-Hawks will be competing with other MCC schools in recruiting. We are the only team that has a system of development from freshman to seniors. Other schools in the conference bring in junior college players year to year, Thibodeau explained.
With an ever-changing MCC conference, the V-Hawks will have to wait to see where they are projected to finish next season. Good or bad, the team will be heading into the 2014-15 season with momentum and a winner’s mentality. They are not afraid to play as the underdog, either.