|Hunter Hill, the preseason first team All-America pick, is one of seven Vikings averaging between 5.6 and 14.4 points per game.
Augustana athletics photo by Tony Hurd
By Josh Smith, D3hoops.com
Experience is a valuable asset, and the Augustana men’s basketball team is loaded with it.
Eight seniors, who all joined the program together as freshmen, are one year removed from finishing runner-up in the NCAA tournament.
“Typically, you’ll have a little bit of attrition either from injuries or from guys that don’t stay in the rotation as upperclassmen and just want to focus on their studies. To have eight guys that have remained healthy and stuck with it is unique,” Augustana head coach Grey Giovanine said, reflecting on the senior group’s progress of reaching the CCIW tournament championship three years ago, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14 and reaching the national championship game a season ago. “I think them being together through all the experiences they’ve had has really been a benefit.
“All those things, I think, add up and give you a resource to call on when you’re in tough situations again.”
Hunter Hill – who headlines the senior group that also includes Ben Ryan, Tayvian Johnson, Griffin Pils, Jawan Straughter, Brandon Mortzel, Jake Gylten and Jake Norica – said his classmates are a close-knit group, which has helped lead to success.
“All of us guys are competitive guys, we want the same thing and we click on and off the court,” explained Hill, who averages a team-high 14.4 points per game. “Over the course of four years, we’ve built such great relationships that I would say we have great chemistry because of it and we just want to be around each other.”
With a 12-0 record and unanimously ranked No. 1 in the country, the veteran-laded Vikings have high expectations for their 2015-16 campaign.
“I think the thing they learned in the title (game) is just how tough seniors can be. We played against a group of four senior starters from Stevens Point that just had a stronger will and toughness than we did,” Giovanine said. “That’s something they experienced and came to appreciate.”
“The expectations are definitely set higher this year. Going back to last season, obviously finishing in second place isn’t where we wanted to end up,” Hill said. “Our goals are higher this year, and because of that our coaching staff has raised our standards.”
The national runner-up finish fueled the Vikings this offseason, prompting many players to find summer jobs and internships in the Quad Cities so they could train with teammates before the fall semester began.
“Anytime you don’t win the last game of your season, it’s definitely going to fuel your fire. We’ve been thinking about that, but at the same it’s a new season (and) we have other things to work on,” Hill said. “But I would definitely say it motivated us in the offseason.”
Despite their previous success and a strong start to the season, the Vikings are not resting on their laurels.
Giovanine has had more physically imposing teams in the past, but he says this group works hard to earn its success.
“When we get off the bus, we’re pretty pedestrian looking,” Giovanine said. “I don’t think we’re inherently exceptional. I think we’re only exceptional if we really play with great passion and execute exceptionally well.
“Time will tell, but I feel like the jury is still out.”
Whether or not Augustana achieves the ultimate success they strive for, the Vikings have already celebrated a number of individual milestones this season.
Hill and Ryan each eclipsed 1,000 points for their careers while Giovanine passed Jim Borcherding to become Augustana’s all-time winningest coach before going on to notch his 400th career coaching victory.
“Those are great honors, but to me they’re recognitions of our program – all our coaches and all our players – working together,” Giovanine said.
When it comes to individual recognition or national rankings, the current group of players at Augustana does a good job of staying focused on its next basketball game – a benefit of being in the spotlight a year ago.
“I think having gone through it last year to some extent, they’re much more immune to the distractions this year,” Giovanine said. “I think this year’s team is much less awestruck by national media attention or rankings or coverage. They’re much more zeroed in on carrying out the task at hand.”
“We don’t really think about it. If we just show up to work every day – come to the gym like it’s a business day – and get better, the results will speak for themselves,” Hill added. “We take it more on a day-by-day basis rather than thinking about what’s going on around us.”
Augustana’s next test is Wednesday night at No. 5 Elmhurst, and there will be many other tests as the Vikings’ CCIW schedule ramps up.
“We know how hard the CCIW is,” Hill said. “It’s going to be a grind.”
When faced with adversity, Giovanine said his team finds a way to win, which is a trait his players have developed by playing in a number of close games throughout their career. He hopes they continue to find ways to win during the conference season, CCIW tournament and ideally in the national tournament.
“We all feel like we should have a real exceptional year. But I also know that it’s not going to just happen, and I think our guys know that too.”
He said all of his players have embraced the “Augie Ego” which requires everyone to set aside personal accomplishments to work toward the same goal. That concept has led this year’s senior group to sustained success.
“Anybody can have a great year, but to be really good over time it’s got to be everybody bought in to carrying out their assignment. We’ve got eight seniors – they’re not all starting, they’re not even all playing – but they’re all bought in to doing the best they can in the role they’re currently in,” Giovanine said.
“The last chapters are unwritten. So how this group is ultimately judged will be dependent upon how things go over the next couple of months. But it’s been a terrific group.”
Central Region clippings
Spalding senior Brandon Goeing scored his 1,000th point during the Golden Eagles’ Dec. 15 matchup with Centre. He now has 1,059 career points. … Grinnell’s Alissa Hirsh scored 21 points in a Nov. 28 win over Beloit College, becoming the eighth Pioneer to eclipse 1,000 career points. … UW-Eau Claire senior Teenie Lichtfuss scored 13 points in a 55-50 win vs. DePauw Dec. 29, surpassing 1,000 points for her career. She currently has 1,035 points. … Alex Sorenson tied a school record for blocked shots in a game twice. He recorded six blocks while scoring 13 points and 14 rebounds against NAIA foe Robert Morris on Dec. 30. Then he swatted away six more shots to go with 24 points and 14 rebounds in a win over North Park on Jan. 2. … The Ripon women’s basketball team broke a 35-year-old team record by securing 77 rebounds in a 96-69 win over Knox on Jan. 2. … North Park junior Liz Rehberger scored a school-record 42 points in the Vikings’ 118-108 win over North Central (Ill.) on Jan. 2. The previous record of 40 was set 22 years ago by Rachel Pearson.
Where they rank
Six men’s team from the Central Region and five women’s programs were ranked in the latest Top 25 poll.
Augustana remained the unanimous No. 1 men’s team, garnering all 25 first place votes.
The Vikings’ CCIW rival Elmhurst moved up one place to No. 5 while Benedictine climbed one spot to No. 6.
UW-Whitewater jumped five places to No. 15 and Chicago rose six spots to No. 16. UW-Stevens Point held steady at No. 19.
St. Norbert and Washington U. fell out of the Top 25 but received 52 and 39 votes, respectively. North Central (Ill.) (21) and Carroll (3) also received votes this week.
UW-Whitewater is the highest ranked women’s team in the Region at No. 6. The Warhawks moved up six spots from the previous poll.
Wash. U. fell four places to No. 11 while UW-Oshkosh tumbled eight spots to No. 13 and Wheaton (Ill.) slipped nine positions to No. 17. UW-Stevens Point entered the Top 25 at No. 24.
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Around the Central Region was written by Josh Smith during the 2015-16 season. Josh covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3sports.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.