KCAC basketball coaches gathered with heavy hearts for media day on Tuesday, three days after Bethany College men's player Manuel Honeycutt, a team captain, died of an apparent heart attack at age 22.
Coach after coach prefaced remarks with condolences for the Swedes and men's coach Clair Oleen. When it was Oleen's turn, he had one request, directed at one of the remaining coaches to speak.
"First, I want to let everybody know it's OK to smile, it's OK to laugh and be happy," Oleen said before turning to look at Friends men's coach Dale Faber. "And I really want Dale to get up here and do that for us."
With the Falcons picked to repeat as league champions in both the coaches and media polls, Faber — also a longtime funnyman — didn't disappoint.
He lauded the extra two weeks of practice the KCAC now has, thanks to a revamping of league rules that put the KCAC on par with the rest of the country's NAIA teams.
"I just don't know how we did it before, other than that I was a tremendous coach," Faber said. "I don't know what the rest of you did to get your teams ready, but I did a great job."
His last topic was his own stunning weight loss. Faber, who reportedly weighed almost 400 pounds at the start of last season, wouldn't disclose how much weight he lost other than to say "it was more than I weigh now."
He looked like he weighed about 200 pounds.
"People want to know how I lost all this weight and the secret was that when we went to the national tournament last year, (Friends athletic director) Joe Zimmerman told me if we didn't win any games I was walking home," Faber said. "And I just got back last week."
The NAIA Division II tournament is held in Point Lookout, Mo. Faber did eventually talk about his team, which brings back All-KCAC guard Chris Jackson, a Wichita Southeast product who is a preseason candidate for KCAC player of the year honors.
"We need Chris to be more of a physical presence, to be out front for us," Faber said. "We will see if he's able to step up to that challenge."
Sterling was picked second in the coaches poll and third in the media. Bethany was third in the coaches and second in the media. McPherson, which made it to the national tournament for the first time last season, was fifth in the coaches poll and third in the media.
The Sterling women were picked to repeat as champions in both polls — the coaches and media picks matched up exactly from top to bottom — as coach Lonnie Kruse enters his 30th season.
The Warriors return 10 of 11 players from last year's rotation, including All-KCAC forwards Britany Gasper and Megan Patrick.
"I'm really excited for this year, I'm not the athletic director anymore and I'm not teaching classes so I feel kind of rejuvenated," Kruse said. "It frees up so much more time to just coach and enjoy being around the players and build those relationships... I'm excited for this season."
Kansas Wesleyan was picked to finish second and Southwestern third. Friends and first-year coach RaeAnne Booth were picked sixth.
"We're focusing on the short term right now," Booth said. "I don't want to put numbers on how many wins I think we'll get, but what I do expect is for us to out-work people and to stay together as a one unit, to be a family."