PELLA —Central College is eyeing a return to contender status in the Iowa Conference men’s basketball race.
After making a surprising run to the championship in 2014, the Dutch made a quick exit from the league tournament last year, leaving them eager for another shot. ANovember 14 contest with Webster (Mo.) opens a slate highlighted by a Dec. 28-29 trip to Puerto Rico.
After inheriting a team that posted a 10-14 mark in his first season, fourth-year coach Craig Douma led Central to back-to-back winning campaigns the past two years, including a 21-8 mark and the program’s 10th NCAA Division III tourney berth in 2013-14.
The Dutch return 10 letterwinners from last year’s squad that finished fourth in the conference with an 8-6 league record, but only two starters are back.
“We’re really excited to see what this year brings,” Douma said. “We feel we can contend for a conference championship.”
But first, there are several lineup questions to be answered.
“There will be a lot of competition for positions,” he said. “As a coach, that’s what you want. It will only make us better.”
Guards—The Dutch return six guards from last year, but graduated all-conference sharpshooter Nile Eckermann, who averaged 15.3 points per contest last season and drilled a team-high 74 3-point goals. Also lost is Aaron Rosenstiel who was third on the squad, averaging 10.9 points per game.
But 6-foot-4 sophomore Kyle Smith returns after a promising freshman campaign, averaging 6.9 points and 3.6 boards.
“Kyle is a guy we can use in a lot of different ways,” Douma said. “He has the ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot the three and play multiple positions.”
Austin Hauser, a 6-1 senior, also returns after averaging 5.3 points and 2.6 assists as the starting point guard.
“We’re looking for a lot of leadership out of Austin this season,” said Douma. “He’s growing as a player and developing that senior leadership role.”
Tate Handsaker, a 6-4 junior, won the team’s Mr. Defense Award and averaged 4.3 points. “Tate is a guy who had his name called last year and really stepped up,” Douma said. “He’s stronger and faster this season and has a year of varsity experience under his belt.”
Nate Munn, a 6-4 junior two-time letterwinner, was an aggressive offensive player off the bench in limited minutes last year, tallying 3.4 points a game. “Nate is a great shooter,” said Douma. “He comes into a game and brings instant offense. He makes the defense guard him all over the court and has an opportunity to make a splash this season.”
Last year’s backup point guard, Trashawn Boyd, returns after playing in 17 games. The 5-8 sophomore from Normal, Ill. averaged 3.5 points. “Trashawn is one of the most explosive guards on the team,” Douma said. “He’s worked really hard to gain strength this offseason and has come into camp ready to compete.”
Two other letterwinners return at guard in 6-0 sophomore Nick Drucker and 6-4 junior Pete Walker. Darius Bradford, a 6-0 senior transfer, will also get an opportunity to compete at guard. Sophomores Ben Clark and Jacob Hay also return.
Forwards— Central’s other returning starter is all-region forward Colby Taylor, the team’s top scorer. The 6-6 junior was a third-team D3hoops.com All-West Region pick and a second team all-conference honoree after averaging 16.4 points, 9.6 boards and a team-high 2.9 assists.
“Colby is going to play a critical role for us,” Douma said. “He’s a great shooter, stretches the floor and can handle the basketball. He’s going to bring a lot of leadership.”
Ryan Kunkel, a 6-7 junior, is back after an injury-riddled season. He averaged 2.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game.
“Ryan started for us last season, got hurt and just couldn’t recover,” said Douma. “We’re excited to see what he can do this season. He’s athletic, long and will definitely contribute this year.”
It’s likely to be an undersized front line for the Dutch. The team’s tallest player, 6-8 sophomore Luke Posivio, has little experience.
A host of others looking for time include 6-5 junior Austin Glawe, 6-4 sophomore Connor Hehli, 6-5 sophomore Taylor Heitkamp, 6-4 sophomore Austin Konsor and 6-4 sophomore Jordan Saddoris.
Freshmen— Douma brought in 13 freshmen who will mainly see time at the junior varsity level this season.
“We have a nice freshman class that came in,” said Douma. “We have a lot of different pieces with a nice mix of height and length, as well as great guard play. I’m excited to see how they develop this year.”
Schedule—The Dutch will play a tough non-conference schedule highlighted by the holiday Excursion.
“Our team is really excited about our trip to Puerto Rico,” Douma said. “We get to see a different culture and it’s a good opportunity to bond and grow as a team. It was great for us two years ago and we are looking forward to it again.”
The conference slate begins January 6 at Luther. “I think our schedule sets up nicely for conference play,” said Douma. “More than ever, it’s anybody’s chance to win the league this year. The parity has been there for years and continues to get better.”
Coaching staff—Douma is excited about the coaches he has on the staff.
“Our coaching staff is awesome,” he said. “We continue to grow and I couldn’t ask for anything better. I would put our staff up against anyone’s.”
Joe Steinkamp, a former Central player, is entering his 10th season on the staff. “Having Coach Steinkamp is like having another head coach,” said Douma. “He’s a basketball junkie that studies the game hard. The two of us work so well together. We challenge each other and that’s what a coaching staff should do.”
Michael Iseman joined the staff after finishing his Central career last year, serving as a varsity assistant and the junior varsity coach.
“Mike brings a youthful energy and passion for the game,” Douma said. “He has already made a huge impact in recruiting and he is doing the necessary steps to make himself a successful head coach one day.”
Goals— Douma knows the recipe for success for the Dutch.
“We have to defend, take care of the ball and rebound,” he said. “If we can do those three things well, the rest of the game will take care of itself.”
Douma knows the scoring opportunities will come.
“We have shooters who can take care of business on the offensive end,” he said. “If we don’t turn the ball over, we can score points and give ourselves a chance to win every game.”
The inexperienced Dutch won’t be favored in the conference race, but Douma nonetheless wants his team to aim for hoisting the league trophy come February 27.
“Our team got a feel for that two years ago and the players who were on that team know how good it felt,” he said. “We are at the point where we expect to contend for a conference title.”
Story provided by Alex Cooper