Nine returnees familiar with the complicated, patient approach of coach Mike Holmes’ basketball system at Southwestern make for a much different situation than this time a year ago.
Only one sophomore was in the regular rotation last season — Keenan Joiner. While he was a tenacious defender and tireless rebounder, the fact that nine players are in camp with a year in the Spartan system lends optimism as the season tips off tonight at William Penn JV. The home opener is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against North Central Missouri.
“With nine back, the more complex the system, the better that is, and the worse it is when you have the one back, like we did last year,” Holmes said. “We had once in a lifetime circumstances last year. If we lose a guy in May or June, we can do something about it. But when you lose someone in August, and we lost three in August, there’s nothing you can do about that.”
The Spartans finished 11-21 overall last year with the young roster, including 2-12 for seventh place in the region. But, a 62-61 upset victory over second-seeded Ellsworth in the regional tournament was a springboard for this year’s growth. Iowa Central defeated SWCC 58-48 in the semifinals on the way to a regional title.
“It was our first tournament win in like 13 years or something, or so I was told,” Holmes said. “So, that was good. The most impressive thing about that, Ellsworth was into us and we did not turn the ball over once in the second half in a one-point win. I’d never had that before, even in high school.”
All-region guard Marquealis Edwards of Minneapolis, the league’s leading scorer (17.2 points per game), heads the list of Spartan returnees. An unselfish player despite scoring skills, Edwards led the team in steals (1.8) and was also second to Joiner in assists (3.5) and rebounding (6.7).
“I thought he was an All-American last year, frankly,” Holmes said. “I think the only reason he wasn’t was that three other guys in our league were sophomores, and that’s how it usually falls to those guys first. I thought he was one of the three best players in the league, no doubt.”
“I believe we can go farther this year,” Edwards said. “It’s a lot better to have a lot of sophomores. The freshmen should be good, too.”
The guard court is in good hands besides Edwards, which makes Holmes hopeful for success in the read-and-react system.
Marcus Littleton of Norwalk is the team’s primary 3-point threat, having made 59 last year to Edwards’ 51. Delby Halcomb of Dallas Center returns as the team’s point guard and floor leader.
Patrick Wright of Davenport showed his potential in an abbreviated season last year, with the ability to take the ball to the basket and defend quick opposing guards.
Providing help off the bench in the guard court are 3-point shooter Chase Blazek of Creston, Brett England of Diagonal and Patrick Negri of Croatia.
“The best thing about those guys is that they understand what they do well, and how they can best contribute,” Holmes said.
“We should have a lot more team chemistry this year, having so many guys back,” Blazek said. “All the sophomores have a good idea now and we can help teach the freshmen. Last year we were all trying to learn new stuff.”
The lone returnee inside for the first half of the season is 6-8 Devin Kastrup of Colorado Springs, Colo., but after the holiday break 6-6 Trevor Kayser of Agency will be back on board.
“We lost Trevor for the first semester with knee surgery,” Holmes said. “That hurts us. We were expecting four bigs in our rotation. I’ll feel real good about it after Christmas when we have the full four.”
There are three versatile freshmen on the SWCC roster this winter. One is a transfer — 6-8 shooting forward Jared Theis of Division II Western State in Colorado. A Colorado Springs native, he is familiar with Kastrup, also from Colorado Springs.
“Jared is a character guy who really appreciates the team systems we are trying to execute,” said Holmes, citing Theis’ perimeter skills, rebounding and low-post moves.
Another multi-skilled player is 6-7 forward Jack Harrison of Prior Lake High School in Minnesota. Holmes cites his soft shooting touch, ability to finish inside and ball movement.
“Jack represents a major upgrade to our rotation,” Holmes said.
It’s almost as if 5-10 guard Larry Mason of Des Moines Roosevelt has already played for Holmes.
“He played for a coach at Roosevelt who played for me,” Holmes said. “He is competitive, unselfish and cautious with the basketball — all traits that are ideal in a Spartan point guard in our system.”
Mason guided Roosevelt to a substate final before bowing out to No. 1-ranked Ankeny.
Holmes also has a familiar face on staff in new assistant coach Trent Fisher, who played for the Spartans in 2008-09 and 2009-10 before finishing his career at Buena Vista. He’s the dorm supervisor at Wilson Hall while finishing his degree with a couple of online courses.
“Coach called and said he needed some help, and I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Fisher said. “It’s not an easy system to pick up on the fly, and it’s good to bring me in so he didn’t have to teach it to someone else.”
Sophomores — Marcus Littleton, G, 6-0, Norwalk; Marquealis Edwards, G, 6-1, Minneapolis, Minn.; Patrick Wright, G, 5-10, Davenport; Brett England, G, 5-9, Diagonal; Patrick Negri, G, 6-1, Istria, Croatia; Delby Holcomb, G, 5-10, Dallas Center; Chase Blazek, F, 6-2, Creston; Devin Kastrup, C, 6-8, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Trevor Kayser, C, 6-6, Agency.
Freshmen — Larry Mason, G, 5-10, Des Moines; Jared Theis, F, 6-8, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Jack Harrison, F, 6-7, Prior Lake, Minn.
Staff — Mike Holmes, head coach; Trent Fisher, assistant coach; Tara Norman, Cody Raddatz, administrative assistants.
Nov. 5 — at William Penn JV, Oskaloosa, 5 p.m.
Nov. 7 — North Central Missouri, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 10 — at Graceland JV, Lamoni, 3 p.m.
Nov. 12 — Northwestern JV, 7 p.m.
Nov. 14 — at Marshalltown, 7 p.m.
Nov. 20 — at North Central Missouri, Trenton, Mo., 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 26 — at Grand View JV, Des Moines, 7 p.m.
Nov. 28 — Central Nebraska, 7 p.m.
Dec. 5 — at Buena Vista JV, Storm Lake, 7 p.m.
Dec. 8 — at Iowa Western, Council Bluffs, 7 p.m.
Dec. 12 — Iowa Lakes, 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 15 — Southeast Nebraska, 3 p.m.
Jan. 5 — at Graceland JV, Lamoni, 3 p.m.
Jan. 9 — at Clinton, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 12 — at Des Moines Area, Boone, 3 p.m.
Jan. 16 — Ellsworth, 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 19 — at North Iowa Area, Mason City, 3 p.m.
Jan. 22 — William Penn JV, 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 — Kirkwood, 3 p.m.
Jan. 30 — at Iowa Central, Fort Dodge, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 — at Iowa Lakes, Estherville, 3 p.m.
Feb. 7 — Grand View JV, 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 — Clinton, 1 p.m.
Feb. 13 — Des Moines Area, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 16 — at Ellsworth, Iowa Falls, 3 p.m.
Feb. 20 — North Iowa Area, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 23 — at Southeast Nebraska, Beatrice, Neb., 3 p.m.
Feb. 27 — at Kirkwood, Cedar Rapids, 7:30 p.m.
March 2 — Iowa Central, 3 p.m.