Prairie Wolves ready to run

More news about: Nebraska Wesleyan
Dale Wellman feels right at home in Division III, and his Nebraska Wesleyan team is ready to make noise in the IIAC.
Photo courtesy NWU Sports Information 

Nebraska Wesleyan men's basketball is defined by newness at the beginning of the 2016-17 season.

New conference.

(Mostly) new division.

New starters. Like, really new starters.

For third-year coach Dale Wellman, it's a newness that brings more comfort than anxiety.

NWU is now a full-time member of Division III, having left the NAIA Great Plains Athletic Conference for the Iowa Conference. And it enters a new era without the first-team All-American and two other starters from a 22-8 team that went to the NAIA tournament.

But Wellman describes himself as a Division III guy – he coached at Alfred and played at Sewanee – and he has the mix of touted newcomers and veteran leadership to help replace last year's talent.

Plus, there's one important thing that isn't new: a full-court, up-tempo system that brings excitement to every Prairie Wolves game.

"It's a little bit of a shock at first," senior Trevor Leiting said, "just kind of getting used to playing that way and getting in that mindset of every time you're open, you've got to try to shoot it and score it."

Let's stop for a moment. (Sorry, Coach Wellman, our conditioning is not up to par yet). If you follow Division III basketball, especially in Iowa, you're thinking ... another Grinnell. That's a little misguided though.

Yes, NWU tries to shoot 20 times more than its opponents. Yes, the Prairie Wolves have averaged 35-plus three-point shots and 90-plus points in Wellman's two seasons. But no, it's not quite Grinnell.

"While we press and try to force turnovers and get deflections, if a team breaks it and they want to play offense for 30 seconds, we'll guard them for 30 seconds," Wellman said. "We're willing to do that. We're not willing to concede buckets just for the sake of tempo. We're different that way."

OK, let's run again.

Gone are top scorers Trey Bardsley (29.1 points per game) and Travis Giesselmann (20.6) from last year's team. Here are a host of freshmen who have already made an impact.

Jack Hiller (6-6 guard) was named Illinois College tournament MVP after averaging 20.5 points in two wins, including 26 on 8-of-10 three-point shooting in the championship, a 107-78 win over the hosts.

Six-foot-four point guard Nate Schimonitz led NWU with 20 points and nine assists on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting night (including two threes) in his first ever college game, a 120-85 dispatching of MacMurray. The 120 points were the most in the Wellman era.

Dylan Dirks makes for a third first-year starter, accompanying Cooper Cook – last year's sixth man – and Blake Ruiz.

Ruiz is the center. He's 6-foot-5, and the Princeton offense runs through him.

"He understands the offense maybe better than anybody and he does a great job seeing the floor," Wellman said.

The guards were recruited perfectly to fit the system. They've experienced big-time high school ball in larger cities. Hiller and Dirks are from Kansas City suburbs Olathe and Shawnee, Kan. Schimonitz hails from Omaha.

"They just did such a good job of picking everything up and doing all the right things early that it made sense," Wellman said. "Last year it was 5-10 and 5-10 (starting guards). This year it's nice to have a 6-4 point guard and a 6-2 two-man in the backcourt instead. I think because of their size, how quickly they learn and how hard they go from that first week, I thought they'd be a pretty integral cog in the full process."

This system started not because of who Wellman was recruiting, but because of who he had.

His first head coaching gig (and previous stop) came at Alfred in 2008. The Saxons were coming off a 2-23 campaign. There were no stars on the team, so Wellman installed a dribble-drive motion offense and full-court press that got as many guys playing time as possible. In 2012, Alfred went to the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

"When I took over this job, I wanted to keep the same brand in terms of playing fast and pressing for 40 minutes," Wellman said. "But I had to tweak it a little bit. Last year we pressed the whole game but it was a 2-2-1. This year we're doing more man and diamond press. Again, keeping the same brand but having to tweak it to fit our personnel."

NWU has played Buena Vista, Central, Dubuque, and Simpson in the last two years, going 4-1 in those games. But there are plenty of other new opponents on the schedule and they'll quickly find out what a challenge playing against this system is, inexperienced players or not.

MacMurray had to call three timeouts in the first half and finished the game with 30 turnovers.

"You could just tell by the players, they were tired, kind of walking the ball up the court, throwing lazy passes," Hiller said. "By the second half, I could just tell they were dog tired. We just kept putting the pressure on."

The schedule will undoubtedly get tougher, opponents more familiar with the style. But one thing is certain for IIAC fans, players and coaches: at Nebraska Wesleyan games, there will be no time to catch your breath.

Parting gift

Former Elmhurst assistant Chris Martin's first game as a college head coach came against ... Elmhurst. And it was a dandy.

Justin VanWambeke buried a game-winning three with 2.7 seconds left to give Loras (2-1) a 104-102 victory in Martin's debut. Martin spent the last five seasons with the Bluejays.

VanWambeke totaled 18 points in the opener, then poured in 35 in a 112-99 win over Aurora.

Tommies fall early

What to make of the defending national champs?

Despite losing four starters to graduation, St. Thomas opened the season ranked No. 10. But UW-River Falls made an early statement with a 74-65 victory on opening night.

The Tommies rebounded for two wins out west, thanks in part to the bench.

St. Thomas reserves outscored those of Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound by a combined 69-7 in 80-72 and 78-74 wins.

Six-foot-two guard Michael Hannon is the leading scorer thus far, averaging 19.3 points in 26.3 minutes off the bench while fellow junior Ryan Boll, a 6-6 forward, has pitched in 18.7 in a starting role.

What to make of the defending national champs? Stay tuned.

Dramatic Auggies

A young Augsburg women's team certainly hasn't been flustered by big moments in the early going.

The Auggies scored a pair of two-point wins with decisive baskets coming in the final seconds of each.

Freshman Camryn Spreese hit the game-winning layup with 5.3 seconds left for a 79-77 victory over UW-Stout, then Hannah Steinhaus' go-ahead layup with a second remaining lifted Augsburg over UW-Superior, 86-84.

The Auggies, who rallied from 21 down against the Yellowjackets, are getting 89 percent of their scoring from newcomers so far. Freshman Tamira McLemore is averaging 19.5 points.

Gusties lock down

The Gustavus Adolphus women are off to a 3-0 start with some stifling defense.

Gusties opponents are averaging just 39.3 points, with both St. Scholastica (79-38) and Viterbo (67-30) failing to even crack the 40-point mark.

Gustavus has totaled at least 20 steals in all three victories and while the schedule hasn't been outstanding so far, this is expected to be a team to watch in the MIAC. Gustavus was picked second in the preseason coaches poll behind St. Thomas.

"That's been a focus going into the preseason and and the players have really bought in to making defense a priority," head coach Laurie Kelley told sports information. "We were fortunate to be able to get a significant lead in each of our games and try some different things and different lineups. I thought it was a good way to evaluate where we're at."

Rough start for the UMAC

It's not considered one of the top conferences in the region, but still, the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference has not had a shining start to non-conference play.

Only defending champion and preseason favorite UW-Superior can boast a win – 59-47 over Concordia-Moorhead after two losses to open the season. The conference as a whole is 1-20.

Men's top performers

Zach Smith went off for Hamline on his way to being named MIAC player of the week. The junior guard averaged 29 points, including 32 in a loss to UW-Superior, as the Pipers went 2-1.

St. John's is looking for new contributors after losing key names to graduation and definitely found one last week. Sophomore David Stokman was 10 of 14 from three-point distance, totaling a career high 31 points in an 89-79 win over UW-Superior, then hitting six of the Johnnies' school-record tying 17 threes against Minnesota-Morris. Stokman finished with 20 points in a 94-88 victory over the Cougars.

Reigning Iowa Conference player of the year Colby Taylor picked up where he left off last season, piling up 36 points and 10 rebounds in Central's 98-92 season-opening win against Iowa Wesleyan. He added 27 and 21 points, respectively, in Dutch victories over North Central and Northwestern. Taylor is 26 for 27 at the free throw line this season.

Triple-double alert! Minnesota-Morris' Tyler Ukkelberg came up with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in Monday's 105-101 win over Presentation.

Puget Sound's Kohl Meyer had three double-doubles, nearly going for a triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in a 117-41 win over Northwest Indiana, a UPS record for margin of victory. Then he had 18 and 11 against Evergreen State, a 65-54 triump, and 14 and 10 in a narrow four-point loss to St. Thomas.

Women's top performers

IIAC Female Athlete of the Week Claire Marburger is a pure scorer. The Central sophomore averaged 29.6 points in three wins last week.

Katilin Langer, the reigning MIAC player of the year, led St. Thomas to identical blowouts over the weekend. She scored a career high 32 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in a 74-43 win over Juniata, then had 22 points as the sixth-ranked Tommies beat McDaniel by the same score.

Callie Harwood hit the game-winning jumper with 14 seconds remaining, two of 27 points for Whitworth in a 67-65 win over UC-Santa Cruz.

Ashley Evans tied the Willamette record with nine three-pointers, shooting 75 percent from distance as the Bearcats set a school mark with 19 treys in their 90-70 season-opening win against Warner Pacific. Evans is now tied with Kylie Towry for the individual record. Towry had seven threes and 26 points of her own in the victory.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to in 2013.