|Andrew Schwoerer started
three games last season for St. Norbert, the only player with any
starts who returned this fall.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Nobody told St. Norbert that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
A team that loses five starters from a 25-2 season is supposed to at least endure some growing pains the following year. Instead, the Green Knights instantly reloaded and enter the 2015 tournament with what might be an even better team than last year’s squad that was bounced in the second round.
“If you’d have told me before this season that we’d go 24-1 and get back to the tournament, I would have said it’s possible, but there were definitely some question marks,” said head coach Gary Grzesk. “It was a little bit unexpected because of what we lost last year.”
A team that loses 59 percent of its scoring is supposed to struggle to recapture the magic of the winningest season in program history. It should at least take some time for the new starting five to find its rhythm. Instead, the Green Knights reeled off nine consecutive wins to start the season and set the tone for another remarkable run. Leading the way from the beginning were senior captains Austin Elliott, Steven Hofacker, and Andrew Schwoerer.
“Those early wins helped build the players’ confidence,” said Grzesk. “A lot of the credit goes to our three senior captains. Their leadership has been outstanding. They’ve gotten all of the younger guys to buy in to what we’re doing.”
The Green Knights won their fifth Midwest Conference title in the past six seasons and earned the program’s seventh NCAA Tournament berth. Their recent dominance of the MWC has its pros and cons. While their strength of schedule has suffered, the Green Knights have grown accustomed to never taking a night off.
“Getting everybody’s best shot night in and night out helps us prepare for the postseason,” said Elliott.
“We are used to playing with a target on our back,” said Hofacker. “We know we have to match that intensity every night.”
That preparation will help the Green Knights in the tournament, when the stakes are higher. While the conference may be down compared to its neighbors in the CCIW and WIAC, it is on the rise and St. Norbert wants to make a statement on behalf of its conference foes.
“We have a chance to do something not just for St. Norbert, but for the whole Midwest Conference,” said Grzesk.
Playing under the pressure of being the MWC’s top dog for the past three years will help St. Norbert as it prepares to face Elmhurst in the opening round. The Green Knights never took a night off in running their streak of consecutive conference wins to 40 in a row.
“What’s probably most remarkable is that they’ve been consistent night in and night out,” said Grzesk of his team. “There are very few times that I can say we weren’t ready to play.”
The seniors have grown accustomed to winning consistently since arriving on campus. St. Norbert increased its win total from 16 to 20 to 25 over the past three seasons. The seniors learned from those who came before them.
“The upperclassmen last year set a great example,” said Elliott.
|St. Norbert fans have had to
learn new faces this season.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
“Those guys lit a fire under us to get better,” said Hofacker. “This isn’t just a four-year program. We want to teach the younger guys so they can keep it going.”
Defense has been the program’s hallmark under Grzesk, but this year the Green Knights improved their offensive efficiency. St. Norbert leads the nation in field goal percentage at 54.7 percent, thanks to a balanced attack led by Schwoerer’s 16.8 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting. There is depth as well, with seven other players averaging between 6.4 and 13.8 points per game. The Green Knights ranked second in the nation in scoring margin, defeating opponents by an average of 18.3 points per game.
“We’ve always hung our hat on defense and rebounding, but the last couple of years we’ve become more skilled offensively,” said Grzesk. “We’ve become more complete on both ends.”
Despite the high national ranking in important statistics as well as in the polls, the Green Knights still have plenty to prove. Although they are in the midst of a 15-game win streak including a third straight MWC tournament championship, St. Norbert dropped two spots in the latest top 25 poll.
“We have a chip on our shoulder,” said Elliott. “We want to prove that we can play with anyone in the country. This is our chance to really prove to people, on our home court, that we belong.”
At the same time, the Green Knights realize that for all of their regular season accomplishments and recent MWC dominance they will have to make a run in March to justify their lofty ranking.
“We hope we can prove to national critics that we belong ranked among the best teams in the nation,” said Hofacker.
The Green Knights can achieve a multitude of goals in one fell swoop this weekend – setting a new mark for most wins in a season, making it beyond the tournament’s first weekend for the first time, and winning an NCAA tournament game on their home court for the first time. This team has already surpassed preseason expectations. Now, they are focused on making history.
“This has been a remarkable season that nobody can take away from them,” said Grzesk. “At the same time, this team – especially the seniors – want to write their own chapter. That means making it past the first weekend of the tournament.”