Mark Potter doesn’t have the formula figured out yet. That equation which puts the Newman men in the NCAA Division II Tournament year after year still escapes him.
He does, however, have an important part of the bigger picture figured out.
“Back to work,” said Potter, who is in his 17th season. “Surround yourself with the right type of kids, kids who buy into our system, and get back to work. I think we’ve done that.”
The Jets suffered a dramatic dropoff after they went 20-8 in 2012-13 and advanced to their first NCAA Tournament.
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With almost an entirely new roster, Newman went 9-17 and finished tied for ninth in the Heartland Conference last season. They’re picked to finish eighth in the Heartland preseason poll this season, with two-time defending champion Arkansas-Fort Smith picked to win it all.
“I learned a lot from last season, actually,” Newman senior forward Jeremy Espinoza said. “The main thing was that no matter what the score is, or what the situation, you’ve got to keep playing, keep working. We weren’t winning, but we had to keep working.”
Espinoza (6-foot-4) was one of the few bright spots. He was second on the team at 13.2 points and first at 6.2 rebounds. The Uvalde, Texas, native transferred to Newman from Northern Oklahoma-Enid and was the only Newman player to earn postseason honors (honorable mention All-Heartland).
He spent the offseason re-shaping his body, trimming about 10 pounds with a focus on conditioning.
“I took care of my body a little better, just drinking a lot more water and running a lot more on my own,” Espinoza said. “I feel like I”m in really good shape, really conditioned, where last year I would get tired and wear down at times.”
Espinoza is one of two returning starters, along with senior guard Ryan McCarthy (7.8 points), a Maize product. The Jets have 13 newcomers.
“We need to grow, build as a family, get our chemistry right,” McCarthy said. “And I think the chemistry is better this year, I think we’re already starting to bond early in the season. I think if we get that right, we’ve got a good chance.”
The young guys are led by a trio of European transplants. Sunrise Christian Academy’s Luka Vermezovic, a 6-9 center from Belgrade, Serbia, is expected to contribute right away. Another Belgrade product, 6-7 guard/forward Luka Radosevic, and 6-5 guard/forward Kevin Bryant, also from Sunrise via Ulm, Germany, could take a little more time.
“We have the right pieces this year, I think we’re a tougher, more versatile team,” Espinoza said. “We’ve got the two Lukas, with (Vermezovic) bringing that size we need and (Radosevic) being more of a versatile player. We all want to compete. We all want to go to battle together.”
Reggie Baker, a 6-4 junior transfer from Potomac State (W.Va.), was ninth in NJCAA Division II at 24.3 points last season.
“Offensively we’re much than we were a year ago at this time, we move the ball, we’re unselfish ... I won’t say always, but most of the time we make that extra pass that is the difference between a high-percentage shot and an average shot,” Potter said. “Defensively, we’ve really got a ways to go. We’re behind where we were a year ago at this point, so we’re going to have to score some more points to begin with.”
The Jets have a brutal schedule to open the season. Four of their first five games are against Kansas’ MIAA schools. The fifth is an exhibition game at Wichita State on Nov. 23.
Newman gets Emporia State (Nov. 18), Washburn (Nov. 20) and Fort Hays State (Nov. 23) at home, then travels to Pittsburg State on Dec. 2.
Two years ago, in its NCAA Tournament season, the Jets swept the four MIAA schools. Last season, they went 1-3.
“The guys who have to lead, guys like Ryan and Jeremy, have to truly understand you can’t look around when it’s time to step up,” Potter said. “You’ve gotta take charge. It’s been so much fun to this point in terms of watching the team progress ... I know it’s going to be exciting to watch us offensively, we just need to be able to stop some people.”
Newman women dealt major blow — To start the season, at least, it’s going to be about who isn’t on the roster for the Newman women and third-year coach Darin Spence.
That’s because Heartland Conference Player of the Year Alexandra Ciabattoni decided to use her last two years of eligibility on the Division I level, transferring to Stetson after leading the Heartland with 23.4 points last season as the Jets finished 16-11 and second in league play.
Ciabattoni, a 6-foot guard/forward, will have to sit out this season for the Hatters. She also led the Jets in rebounds, blocks and steals.
Two starters, both guards, return for the Jets in 5-10 sophomore Cierra Tjaden (5.4 points) and 5-8 sophomore Brianna Caldwell (3.6 points), a Northwest product.