Tabor’s men’s team was simply unstoppable last season, running the table during the KCAC regular season and capturing the conference tournament as well.
The season was a culmination of good chemistry and hard work, said coach Micah Ratzlaff, entering his 10th season at Tabor.
“We had no issues with guys not working hard,” he said. “They jell and buy in. The mentality of the guys getting along on the court is huge.
“I don’t deal with egos very well. We play like we’ve been there before. So far (this season), it’s been really good.”
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This year, the Bluejays will have to replace two guards and a sixth man off that team, but the good news is that Lance Carter, the reigning KCAC Player of the Year, is back.
Carter, a 6-foot-4 senior from Troy, Ohio, led Tabor in scoring, rebounding and assists.
“We had a pretty phenomenal year last year,” Carter said.
A first-round loss in the NAIA Division II national tournament has Carter wanting more this season, especially with this being his final shot as a senior.
“It would be nice,” he said. “We talked about that. We want to create our own identity and go out and do our own thing.”
Ratzlaff also was honored, winning the league’s Coach of the Year award for the second straight season.
Entering a decade of leading his alma mater, Ratzlaff’s Bluejays are the preseason conference favorite and ranked ninth nationally.
Tabor also returns the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, Johnathan Gibson, a 6-8, 235-pound forward who is originally from Grenada by way of College of the Canyons in California.
“We’re a fairly experienced team,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s always fun to see what you’re bringing to the table. It’ll be fun.”
As Carter has grown as a player in his time at Tabor, the success has grown likewise.
“My freshman year, we won the conference tournament,” said Carter, who has already graduated and is pursuing a Masters of Business Administration online. “As a sophomore, we won the regular season, and junior year we won both.
“I’m just looking to do it again.”
Close games were infrequent for the Bluejays a year ago. After a loss in its holiday tournament opener Jan. 1, Tabor won 17 straight games and didn’t lose again until the first round of the national tournament, finishing with a 30-4 record and winning the league for the second straight year. Friends did force the Bluejays into overtime in the KCAC Tournament semifinal, but Tabor prevailed, making it 3-0 in overtime games.
Ratzlaff will have to replace departed guards D’Marco Smith and Malik Brooks, who with Carter handled the bulk of the ballhandling duties last year. Also gone is forward John Jedneak, who frequently provided a spark for the Bluejays off the bench.
Other returnees include seniors Tullio Parry and Davaughndre Jones.
“Tullio is a key rebounder,” Ratzlaff said, “and Jones is a ‘dirty-work’ type of guy.”
Junior guard Alan Urrutia will be a key in the backcourt. Ratzlaff is expecting junior guards Kyle Baker and Jordan Horstick to also play key roles.
“We have five transfers, and four are eligible this year, along with three redshirts from last year,” Ratzlaff said.
Ratzlaff said he is excited to see what some of his freshmen can do. Two are somewhat local, 6-foot guard Malik McKinney from Newton and 5-10 sharpshooter Scott Duerksen from Hesston.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job recruiting,” Ratzlaff said. “I’m super, super pleased with our practices.”
Duerksen particularly intrigues him, Ratzlaff said.
“He’s a combo guard and a super athlete who understands the game,” he said. “He plays solid and tries to get better and better every day.”
Other new guards for the Bluejays include two junior-college transfers, 6-0 Julian Winton from Pratt Community College, and 5-7 DeShun Patterson from Central Lakes College (Minn.).
Having four seniors with experience in your system doesn’t hurt, either. And, just like last year, things will flow from Carter.
“The ball is in their hands quite a bit,” Ratzlaff said of his guards. “I think we may be more athletic (this year). We’re going to put the ball in the hole and see if we can stop them (from scoring).”
“Any guard we put on the floor is allowed to go at it.”
Making the newcomers into a cohesive can be a challenge, but Carter is already seeing some chemistry.
“We’ve been working, and we’ve brought in a lot of solid transfers,” he said. “It’s like a family on the floor.”
Carter, who said the Bluejays were blessed by going mostly injury-free during last season’s run, said he’s eager for the season to start.
“I’m just looking forward to playing for coach Ratzlaff and going out with a bang,” he said. “We’re going to war with Coach Ratzlaff.”