Locals leading charge for Denison

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David Meurer and the Big Red got a big lift when he successfully recruited his high school teammate, Jett Speelman, to join the program.
Photo by Jace Delgado

Denison University's men's basketball team found the right recipe – and it consists mainly of local ingredients.

Last year, the Big Red battled inconsistency and sat at 9-8 at one point in late January. The team won five of its next eight heading into the NCAC tournament. Once there, as the No. 4 seed, Denison posted three wins, captured the NCAC title and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.

Alma ended the Big Red's season with a 74-60 victory, but that laid the groundwork for the team's 16-1 start this season.

"We knew we had the collective talent and wherewithal to get it done. We really just bought in as a team. That was the turning point. When we went on that run to the tournament, that's when we found out we can play with anybody. We're riding that and seeing how far we can go with it," Denison senior point guard David Meurer said. "Any team is a sum of its parts. We have super competitive guys who never waver. That's huge for us. We have guys who believe, no matter who step on court with, that we'll get a win."

What makes it even more unique for Denison – the squad is experiencing success with players who grew up within a short drive of the campus, which is located outside of Columbus, Ohio. Jett Speelman and Meurer grew up in Granville, where Denison is located. They both attended Newark Catholic and were teammates on the basketball team. Reunited when Speelman transferred from Division II Ashland University prior to last season, the two lead the way for the Big Red. Speelman, a 6-foot-7 post player, tops the team in scoring at 19.0 points per game. Meurer is next at 14.5 ppg.

"That was a big turning point for our program when Jett transferred. I was really hard on him to try to get him to come over. I told him we had a talented group. He made the best decision of his life to come here. It's been really special," Meurer said. "We work really hard in the summer and it's showing now. Just being around him for 15-plus years, you can't teach that. It's been a great experience for both of us. He makes it a lot easier on all of us. It's been really special for the families and the community, too."

Speelman was happy to reunite with Meurer at Denison.

"It's definitely special. We have a great connection. I think we've been playing basketball together since fourth grade. I know his tendencies and he knows mine," Speelman said. "I grew up about seven or eight minutes away from campus and my mom has worked here the past seven years as a nurse. (David) and I always would come into the gym and work out when we were in high school, so it's really special. It's great. It feels a little more like home. It's the best of both worlds for me, personally."

Those two aren't the only locals contributing for the Big Red. Seniors Bret Woolard, who is from nearby Newark, and Devin Pitts, who is from nearby New Albany, are in the starting lineup as well.

"It's great to have that local feel and have a lot of local fans. Devin and I played on the same summer league team for years and I've known Bret Woolard for a long time," said Speelman. "It's a unique thing having four guys who live in a 20-miles radius playing on the same college basketball team. Not a lot of people from Granville or even the local county go to Denison. Being a local guy playing at a local college is cool. I firmly believe everything happens for a reason; that seems to be the case here."

Nearly 80 percent of Denison's student body comes from outside of Ohio. So, the local players embrace the uniquely familiar environment. The same people who watched them as high schoolers now show up to Big Red games.

"We are getting a lot of local people show up. They like to come watch the players they saw when they were playing high school basketball a couple years ago. Plus, we're fun to watch and a good team," said longtime Denison head coach Bob Ghiloni, who is a Newark native, too. "You do get a little more recognition when kids are local. It means something special. It's helped us out. I think the other guys on the team appreciate it. It's not usual form them to go over to their players' parents' for dinner. They've made their homes open to all the players."

The players' local roots allow them to play on the same team over the summers in the Columbus Pro-Am league.

"They played really well in that league, too," Ghiloni said. "The fact that our guys have a chance to play together in the summer is nice. It gives them that much more time together to work on things. It's shown."

Overall, Denison hopes to continue its strong run and defend its conference championship. Complacency is not a worry.

"Practices are good every day. We don't have to do a whole lot as coaches. They keep each other accountable. They are very good competitors. We compete in every drill in practice," Ghiloni said. "Not only are they good competitors, but our guys have a lot of confidence. When we get down, we really believe we can handle any situation. They've been in various situations and never really get rattled. Sometimes, I wish they would get rattled. Sometimes, they're a little too cool. They understand what they have to do to get back into games."

The Big Red, which suffered its only loss at Capital, 84-75, on Dec. 14, is unbeaten in the NCAC (10-0) and has a two-game lead for first place.

"We're not satisfied at all. Even from last year, we've gotten a lot better, especially defensively," Speelman said. "We still have a lot of things to work on. It's good to see we're playing well and we're not at our best yet."

Murphy collects more records

Carnegie Mellon University senior Lisa Murphy continues to be one of the nation's top players. She added to her record collection over the weekend, too. Her 44 points and 15 rebounds made her the first women's basketball player in UAA history to eclipse 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She is the 18th player in D-III history to achieve the feat.

In addition, she blocked the 200th shot of her career to become the eighth player in D-III history to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks. Murphy ranks second in the country at 24.6 points per game and first in field-goal percentage (82.0).

Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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