|Rocky Harris' play on the defensive end, as well as the offensive end, sparked Salisbury vs. Virginia Wesleyan.
By Jamie Wilson, d3photography.com
By Ryan Scott
The Salisbury men's basketball team finished last year on quite the high. Yes, they lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but the weeks preceding were a whirlwind. The Sea Gulls won their final seven Capital Athletic Conference games to finish second, won the conference tournament by one point after two clutch free throws with less than a second on the clock, then proceeded to knock off heavily favored Eastern Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Key to that success was junior Wyatt Smith, who led the team in scoring, hit the free throws to win the automatic bid, and scored 37 against ECSU. With Smith at the helm and Salisbury bringing back every player who averaged more than ten minutes, the team looked dominant.
Then, in April, head coach and Salisbury alum Josh Merkel left to be the new head coach at Randolph-Macon where he'd previously served as assistant. Coaching changes can often be difficult at first (as we've seen with Macon's slow start this season), but Salisbury brought in another alum, Andrew Sachs, who built a strong program at Bethany over the last six seasons, and the transition has been relatively smooth.
Said senior captain Kyle Savercool: "It all happened pretty quickly after the season, so there was time to prepare. We have a lot of returners so that helps our continuity and fluidity. We were able to pick up new things quickly."
Then, this fall, news came down that Smith would miss the entire season recovering from shoulder surgery. He'd been playing with a torn labrum for years, but multiple dislocations over the summer made the decision an easy one. Easy medically, at least. Smith is planning to be back for the 2016-17 season, but it's difficult to miss going out with the class he came in with and helping to ride the momentum of last season.
"[My teammates] supported me," said Smith, in an interview with Shawn Yonker of delmarvanow.com, "It's a great time for them to step up and emerge and be the players they can be. I'm basically at peace with it at this point."
"Wyatt is a big loss; we miss him a lot. We have a next man up mentality from the top down, so we all have to step up and make plays. We're doing it now and we'll continue to do it throughout the year," says Savercool.
Step up they have. Despite the new coach, new offense, and adjusting to Smith's absence, the Sea Gulls came screaming out of the gate, starting 5-0 with wins over Rowan, Widener, Southern Vermont, DeSales, and D3hoops.com preseason No. 2 Virginia Wesleyan.
"Having the injury happen so early gave us enough time for other guys to step up and get better," says Sachs.
One of those players stepping up has been junior forward Gordon Jeter, who is having to bear more of the inside scoring load without Smith.
"We are very prepared moving forward [without Smith]," he said. "We have to do it as a collective unit, replace that presence inside."
It really has been a team effort; eight Sea Gull players have scored in double figures over the first four games, providing a kind of depth that can cover an off shooting night.
"I'm very happy we're finding ways to win," says Sachs, "We didn't shoot well in the first game and we won. We didn't shoot well in this third game and we won." The Sea Gulls did shoot well in the fourth game, however, setting a school record with 19 of 30 shooting from three-point range to beat DeSales 89-79 at the Hoopsville Classic.
Depth and experience have helped the team transition to Sachs' system as well.
"The transition has been very smooth, actually," says Jeter.
It doesn't hurt that Sachs knows his way around campus.
"It's a lot different. The dynamics, the academics, pretty much everything on campus is different," says Sachs, "but the gym's the same; that hasn't changed at all."
There is no visible sign of struggle, as the team seems well into its mid-season stride. Still, Sachs knows they have a long way to go to be the team he wants them to be.
"You need to watch three stats in basketball: rebounds, turnovers, and free throws," he said. "You win those battles, you'll be in every game."
Against Virginia Wesleyan, the Sea Gulls lost the rebounds battle pretty handily, but they got to the free throw line 29 times and forced a veteran backcourt into 22 turnovers (to only 11 from Salisbury). In fact, they've forced 18 or more turnovers in four of their five games, a testament to a team who lost its most forceful post presence.
"Believe me, I'd love to have [Smith]," says Sachs, "but in the long run, as a team, I think it'll make us better; it will give the other players a chance to shine."
The Sea Gulls are taking every opportunity to shine, and the schedule doesn't get any easier. Salisbury opens conference play at Christopher Newport after Thanksgiving and has Concordia (Wis) and Wooster, two NCAA Tournament teams, at a holiday tournament in Puerto Rico. With a start like this, and despite the changes, this is shaping up to be a special season in Salisbury.
Washington College perseveres amidst tragedy
Aaron Goodman took over the reins at Washington College this summer, which is transitioning to a rookie head coach after fourteen years with Rob Nugent. This senior class has won only 13 games total over its first three seasons, so the task at hand is considerable. Though Goodman is taking the new assignment one day at a time, "[There are] small steps in the process of rebuilding a program."
"Players need to be held to a higher standard and you have to reward them for small goals along the way," says Goodman, "The players need to be together. They have to be accountable to each other, especially for bad decisions that it's easy to make during college. It's about going to bed early sometimes, getting up early to put in work sometimes."
The challenges to success this season are many. They include replacing the production of four seniors and reclaiming the confidence of a team that really underperformed its talent in recent years. The squad also opened the season with losses to Widener and Rowan. Then things got difficult.
Word came early Monday morning, Nov. 16, to evacuate Washington College's campus. The school was later shuttered through Thanksgiving break. A sophomore, Jacob Marberger, not affiliated with the basketball team, had been having a difficult semester and his parents could not find him and were worried he was distraught and armed. Sadly, Marberger's body was discovered on the Nov. 21; he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
This tragedy and campus closure forced the Shoremen to move two home games to January, creating a situation where they'll play 11 games in three weeks, including a five-games-in-nine-days stretch.
Washington College was able to play their game as scheduled over the weekend at Elizabethown. They received court time and practice accommodations at Mt. St. Mary's and Elizabethtown and managed to end a 22-game road losing streak with a 77-67 victory. Sophomore Joey Shelton led the way with 19 points.
I imagine the best way to sum up this story is to let the Shoremen speak for themselves. From Goodman again:
"This was a tough week for us as a team: handling a very scary situation and ultimately a sad and tragic loss of a peer. We were not together for a few days and only had a couple of days practice on the road to prepare for a well-coached, scrappy Elizabethtown team. This team came together and grew closer from the experience. It's a reminder that we all face hardship and adversity, and we remind our guys it's OK to seek help, that we are here to support each other. On a whole, I am proud of the proactive measures that Washington College put in place to ensure all of our campus community's safety. Although, I didn't know Jacob, I feel remorse for his family and hope they heal in time together. We will all grow stronger and closer as a result of this sad story, and hope that those closest to Jacob are able to move forward remembering the positive impact he had in their lives."
Setting records at Muhlenberg
The Muhlenberg women have had a strong program for a long time; in fact, they've been playing women's basketball there for 55 years. Over that span, just two triple-doubles have been posted. This season, sophomore point guard Brandi Vallely broke that mark in just four games this season. She managed 16 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in the Mules' third game as well, all wins.
Vallely battled injury last season, appearing only five times. In one of those games she dished out 12 assists, meaning she's already had more career 12 assist games than every other Muhlenberg player ever, combined. Watch out for Vallely and the Mules; despite losing six seniors from a conference championship team, they're ready to make waves in the Centennial.
Mid-Atlantic teams flexing muscles out of region
Both the Mary Washington and Christopher Newport men's teams have opened the season solely against ODAC competition. Mary Washington is 2-2, while CNU has gone 3-0. St. Mary's Wesley, Salisbury, and Lebanon Valley also have wins against the Virginia power conference. It is good to see Mid-Atlantic teams not only scheduling strong out of region opponents, but winning. This will only prove beneficial for everyone once we get to Pool C selection.
The Stevenson women played Salisbury last night; it is their only home game until January 2 After the Hoopsville Classic this weekend, the Stevenson men are also on the road until that conference doubleheader against Albright.
The Goucher women started 4-0 this season. They only won five all last season. The men's team is 2-2 (with one loss to Navy), halfway to last year's win total. New coaches. New hope.
With no one knowing what to make of the MAC Commonwealth this year, the Hood men have come out 4-0, with wins over Marymount and St. Vincent already. In fact, only two teams from the MACC have losing records right now and one of them, Stevenson, is getting All-conference returnee Erik Fisher back from injury soon.
Similarly, for the Landmark women, only one team currently has a losing record – and it's pre-season favorite Catholic, who's survived a rough early season schedule, but will need to get back on track to challenge in this deep conference.
We are always on the lookout for good Mid-Atlantic region stories. I'm especially interested in statistical milestones and behind the scenes successes – these aren't always as easy to find in headlines and box scores. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ryanalanscott on twitter.
Around the Mid-Atlantic was written by Ryan Scott during the 2015-16 season. He now writes Around the Nation.