Strong start puts Marietta coach at ease

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The reigning OAC Player of the Year is back, but A.J. Edwards has plenty of help from his Pioneer teammates.
Nate Knobel Photography 

Like many other coaches, Marietta bench boss Jon VanderWal wasn't sure what he had in his Pioneers heading into the season.

You feel like you know, but you don't know until the games actually count.

A schedule packed with three top-20 teams in the first six games added to VanderWal's sleepless nights as well.

So far, so good, though. Marietta was unbeaten through its first six games and its smallest margin of victory was 16 points – 87-71 over Bethany. The Pioneers soared up the rankings to No. 3.

"We feel really fortunate to be sitting at 6-0 with the schedule we've played; we knew it'd be a tough stretch at the beginning of the year playing some ranked opponents and good teams," VanderWal said. "I was a little nervous going into the season, to be honest with you, because we had to be really ready and we lost four seniors off last year's team."

Marietta, which welcomed back only two starters, beat La Roche (101-75) and Albright (74-56) to open the year. Then, the Pioneers topped then-No. 2 Christopher Newport (74-50) and then-No. 7 Wooster (99-70).

"Every team is different. You're always nervous going into Game 1 not knowing what you'll get," VanderWal said. "Add in Christopher Newport and Wooster early on and we feel really fortunate to be where we are."

Marietta's performances in the preseason didn't exactly give VanderWal much confidence, but he's pleased with what he sees.

"Our guys are jelling really well with each other right now. The big question marks for us were defense and rebounding because we lost some tough, hard-nosed guys," he said. "We didn't defend or rebound well in our scrimmages. When we went down to Maryland (to play Albright and Christopher Newport), I thought those were two of the best defensive performances we've had in my tenure. This group figured out something just in time for the start of the season."

Senior A.J. Edwards picked up where he left off last season when he was named the OAC Player of the Year. He averaged 17.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

"It's pretty sweet – winning is always fun. Basketball is pretty fun right now," Edwards said. "We're playing together and being coachable and having good chemistry. I am not really surprised with our start. Everybody is capable. It's part of the Marietta Way – a couple guys graduate and a couple guys fill in."

A varied attack is important to the Pioneers' offense, which averages 86.5 points per game.

"A.J. is having a great year again. He is such a good player and draws so much attention and, therefore, makes everyone else on the team better," VanderWal said. "It works both ways, our perimeter guys shoot it so well and do some things well that make him better, too. Teams have a hard time keying on one guy. If they double team him and send guys to help, they'll probably pay the price in other areas."

Junior point guard Keith Richardson is one of those players. Richardson, who did not play last season, is averaging 16.2 points off the bench.

"Not too many coaches have the luxury of bringing a guy off the bench who gets 16 points per game," VanderWal said. "He is an explosive player. It's really nice having him back this year."

Sophomore guard Kyle Dixon averages 10.2 points per game, while Dillon Young (9.7), Anthony Wallace (9.5) and Jack Thome (8.3) are next.

"Offensively, we're such a balanced team and we don't have to force feed A.J. We have quite a bit of firepower around here and created some tough matchups for teams," VanderWal said. "We play really fast and we're only giving up 64 points per game and opponents are shooting 37 percent against us. I am pleasantly surprised how well we've rebounded and defended."

The Pioneers take pride in their defense.

"Defense is one of the most important parts of game. You have to score, but you have to get stops. When we do that, it makes everything a lot easier," Edwards said. "Our expectations are high as can be. We want to win a national title. I don't think it gets any higher than that."

Marietta, which knocked off then-No. 20 Baldwin Wallace as well, hopes to build on its momentum in OAC play.

"It doesn't get any easier for us. We're just working hard and taking it day by day," VanderWal said. "With all this publicity and notoriety comes a bigger target on our back. We have to stay grounded and keep working hard. We have a chance to have a really good year."

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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