BY: SEAN NEIDIG, SPORTS INFORMATION GRADUATE ASSISTANT
COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Capital University Men's Basketball takes the court in 2018, fans may not initially see much of a difference from prior rosters. Dig a little deeper and watch a little closer and it will become apparent that this team is very different from the Capital teams of the past.
The Crusaders return 11 players from last year's team with almost half of those players going into their senior seasons. Austin Schreck, Joey Weingartner, Caleb Cox, Will Hannah and Gavin Wildermuth are each prepared for their final seasons with the Purple and White, giving the team its largest senior class since the 2012-13 season, which also featured five.
"My expectations are that those seniors should be capable of leading us to compete for the conference," said Capital head coach, Damon Goodwin, who is now entering his 24th season in Bexley. "They're all very good students. They're all smart kids. They're all very good players and that is the challenge that we've laid out to them, 'this is your time and this is your team' and I believe that they can do it. Any time in this league you have seniors playing for you that's a big advantage. Collectively, they just need to come together and realize that."
Schreck and Weingartner were each All-Ohio Athletic Conference performers last season with Schreck being named Second Team All-OAC and Weingartner earning an All-OAC Honorable Mention nod. Schreck led the team in points per game with 15.3 and assists per game (2.3) while finishing second with 5.2 rebounds per game. Weingartner, a native of Centerville, Ohio, served as Capital's threat from the outside, averaging 14.0 points per game while hitting 2.5 3s per game at a 40.4 percent clip.
As good as each player was last season, both took the offseason to improve areas of their games. Both said they focused on improving their ball-handling skills while Schreck added that he put a lot of energy towards further improving his jump shot. The Erlanger, Ky. native shot 44.8 percent from behind the arc last year but attempted just over two 3-pointers per game.
Another player that could have been named All-OAC last season was senior forward Caleb Cox (Cincinnati, Ohio / Oak Hills). Cox led the OAC with 2.4 offensive rebounds per game while placing third in the league with 8.4 total boards per contest. He also averaged 10.7 points per game.
The other two seniors, Will Hannah (Milford, Ohio / Milford) and Gavin Wildermuth (Botkins, Ohio / Jackson Center), will also have large parts to play as leaders and players that fill the gaps between the all-conference Crusader backcourt and Cox.
"Will is one of our better ball-handlers," Goodwin said. "He's a forward but he sees the floor, makes good passes and he's kind of that glue guy offensively that sees things happening. Will's going to be an important part of what we do this year. The other senior is Gavin who has always been a role player for us off the bench. Gavin brings a lot of experience, a lot of toughness and a lot of game savvy to the table, and Gavin is one of our two captains."
Supplementing the senior class will be returning juniors Dan Auble (Brecksville, Ohio / Brecksville) and Ganiyu Yahaya (Abuja, Nigeria / Wesley Christian) as well as newcomer Drew McCollum (Dayton, Ohio / Dayton Alter), a junior transfer from Lindenwood University.
"Dan is very cerebral as a point guard. He understands what we're trying to do. He makes the right calls depending where guys are in a certain formation," Goodwin said of Auble. "[Ganiyu] is an energy guy. He's one of those guys that may not be as fundamentally skilled as some other guys but his energy and his quickness makes up for that. If he can do a little bit more of that other stuff and combines that with that effort he brings a different element to our game than anybody else on our team right now."
Four sophomores return from the 2016-17 roster and one of them, Cameron Caldwell (Westerville, Ohio / Westerville South), started 21 games for the Crusaders last season in his first year as a full-time point guard.
"It was hard but I liked it," Caldwell said of the transition. "I took on the challenge."
This season, Caldwell is looking forward to playing more composed basketball after he admits being out of control at times last year. He also worked on improving his jumper after attempting the vast majority of his shots in the paint last season. Sophomore Joe Hartmann (Cincinnati, Ohio / LaSalle) is another sophomore who Goodwin expects to see a lot of minutes because of his passing skills from the post.
The other sophomores are Logan Jessing (Sylvania, Ohio/Northview) and Reed Bradfield (Dixie Heights, Ky./Dixie Heights). Jessing saw action in eight games as a freshman and Bradfield got in five, although both will be asked to play larger roles this year in the post.
After bringing in five freshmen last season, there are four first-year players this season. Point guard Ryan Christie (Toledo, Ohio / St. Johns Jesuit), catch-and-shoot threat Ryan Rose (Tipp City, Ohio / Bethel) and Austin Schreck's younger brother, Tyler, all have the chance to be impact freshmen.
With the amount of depth and experience the Crusaders have returning, Schreck and Weingartner are excited to get to spread their wings as they grow into leadership positions.
"We've been together for so long that we just know each other so well," Weingartner said. "We've all seen significant minutes in good times and in bad times. We all bring something a little different to the game too. Some guys might be able to talk to other guys better, some guys are more vocal than others. Some guys lead by example. There are just so many moving parts that we can use to our strength so it's definitely beneficial to our younger guys."
That wisdom and knowledge will be crucial as the team begins the regular season and moves into OAC play, partly because of the schedule Goodwin has constructed.
"We may have the hardest schedule we've ever had," Goodwin said. "There really are no down days. I think our non-conference schedule is probably one of the strongest in the country. If we can get through that and we can compete through the league and get down the road and we're looking for an avenue to get into the tournament, I think our strength of schedule will be a tremendous asset."
Schreck also realizes the advantage of going through some early-season battles.
"It's really motivating and it shines a light on how talented a group coach thinks we are and what we can achieve," the senior said. "You don't schedule a tough nonconference unless you think you can succeed doing so. That's a reflection of what he thinks of us."
Things won't get any easier after the first month of the season as the Crusaders enter OAC play. Generally regarded as one of the strongest and deepest leagues in the country, the OAC powers Marietta College, John Carroll University, the University of Mount Union and Ohio Northern University are all expected to present incredible challenges while Muskingum University, Heidelberg University and Wilmington College are all threats if you are not prepared for a fight. To prepare for the close contests, the Crusaders spent the offseason focusing on defense while revamping the offense.
"Defense is where we really need to get better," Goodwin said. "It's something we've focused on as a coaching staff and we are talking every day about how we need to get back to the defense that we used to play when we were competing for championships. We have certain things that we do defensively that are probably different than most programs and our guys have to buy into that. In the past, those defensive things that we do have made us different and when we're really good at those things it's hard to play against us."
Improvement on defense can also lead to an improved offense and Caldwell expects to see that early on in the season.
"I feel like we'll be able to score the ball a lot better," he said. "Coach put in a new offense so hopefully that will help our players get to the basket more and create for others."
"We shouldn't be a high-turnover team and when you don't turn over the ball you give yourself a chance," said Goodwin. "If you get five more shots than an opponent, especially the way OAC games are that are usually pretty tight, that gives you five more possessions to score and sometimes that can be the difference in the game."
When it is all said and done though, only time will tell whether that preparation in the offseason will pay off in the form of wins and conference contention. For now, Weingartner is just happy to be back on the court.
"You go through those weeks of the early-morning runs and lifts where you question whether or not the basketball [season] is ever going to come," he laughed. "We're excited."
The Crusaders will open the regular season with a pair of games in Michigan, beginning with Albion College (Mich.) on Friday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. The next day, Capital will play Trine University (Ind.) at 1 p.m. Coverage of those games and every game this season can be found at athletics.capital.edu and on Twitter.