PAINESVILLE, OHIO --
Facing a daunting schedule and the challenges of moving up from Division III, the Lake Erie College men's 2008-09 season can be viewed as a successful first step. The Storm won eight games and lost seven others by single digits in its inaugural D-II season against a slate that featured five NCAA Tournament participants, including the eventual national champion, and 19 road games.
But last year's squad was a veteran group with four seniors who will need to be replaced. So it will be up to a small group of returners and a bunch of talented newcomers to take the program's next step this season and improve on last year's campaign.
"Last year was a learning experience for us all," said fifth-year head coach Cliff Hunt. "The returners have gone through it now and understand the rigors of Division II basketball. But we have a lot of new guys and we're still a very young team, so there is going to be a learning curve through the early parts of the season."
The Storm should get a big boost from the return of senior forward Darnell Campbell (Cleveland, Ohio/Collinwood). A career double-digit scorer (11.3 ppg.), Campbell was limited to just five games in 2008-09 before a setback in his return from the previous season's microfracture surgery ended his season. He was granted a medical redshirt and returns for his final season of eligibility with a good shot to challenge several school career records.
Campbell will not only be counted on for his performance on the court, but for his leadership as well. He'll share that responsibility with another returning starter, junior guard Ethan Bradshaw (Cincinnati, Ohio/Harmony Prep). Bradshaw broke into the starting lineup midway through his freshman year and made great strides last year, improving his scoring average to 9.6 points per game. He poses a big threat from the perimeter after finishing second on the team in three-point shooting.
"Darnell is a very talented player who has experience, has been in the program and knows what we want," Hunt said. "Ethan also has a lot of experience, but he is still on learning curve between becoming accustomed to our style of play and adjusting to D-II. He had some really good moments last year but still has room to grow."
Sophomore forward Matt Grendel (Independence, Ohio/Independence) is also back after appearing in 25 games as a freshman. He averaged 2.8 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and made seven starts towards the end of the season filling in for injured teammates.
The frontcourt will get a big boost from newcomers Joe Roberts (Cleveland, Ohio/Rhodes/Alderson-Broaddus) and Jimmy Kerrigan (Strongsville, Ohio/Midpark/Cuyahoga C.C.). The two junior transfers provide size and experience down low. The 6-5, 225-pound Roberts played in 25 games and averaged nearly seven points per game at Alderson-Broaddus and the 6-8 Kerrigan was a 13-point-per-game scorer at the junior college level.
Last season, the undersized Storm was outrebounded by an average of almost nine boards a game.
"Both players give us an inside presence, athleticism and intensity that we are very excited about," said Hunt.
In the backcourt, junior Antonio Kidd (Cleveland, Ohio/Lakewood) returns after missing last season. He played in 27 games in 2007-08 and was second on the team in assists and averaged 5.3 points per contest.
Altogether there are 10 new faces on the roster this season and many of those players could make an immediate impact depending on how quickly they adapt to the college game and the level of competition.
"With a lot of new guys, there will always be a learning curve," Hunt said. "We like the makeup of this team a lot. But we need to grow as a team and come together and play and compete the way we want to."
That way is an aggressive, unselfish style of play. The Storm will be a transition team on both ends of the floor, looking to create opportunities on offense with a pressure defense. Primarily a man-to-man pressure defense, Lake Erie forced nearly 16 turnovers a game and has averaged 19 forced turnovers per game in Hunt's tenure.
"Our best teams here have been full-court pressure teams," he said. "We run and jump, we run and double-team and force turnovers. (Forcing turnovers) gives us extra possessions. And then on offense, we want to press the issue and look for advantages by pushing the ball and spreading the defense out either in transition or in our half-court set. I think it is a good style for us because not a lot of teams spread the floor like we do."
For the second straight season, Lake Erie will open at home hosting its own Tip-Off Tournament at the Jerome T. Osborne Family Athletic & Wellness Center Nov. 15-16. Tournament returners Saint Joseph's and Point Park will make their second straight appearance in the field, joined by newcomer Ohio Valley.
The rest of the slate is just as challenging, if not more, than last year's. The Storm will play eight preseason top-25 teams, a group that includes the defending national champions and several teams that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
In the seasons first three weeks, Lake Erie will play three teams either ranked or receiving votes in the preseason coaches' poll. They'll play Northern Kentucky and Gannon in those school's own tournaments and mix in a road game at defending champ Findlay in between.
December will feature home dates with Edinboro and Indianapolis and road games at Kentucky Wesleyan, Southern Indiana and Indianapolis.
The team will close out the 2009 portion of its schedule at a tournament hosted by nationally-ranked Florida Southern and open the new year with another ranked foe, Grand Valley, at home.
"Our schedule is loaded with very, very good teams," Hunt said. "This is our first year of being eligible for Division II postseason play. If we want to have a chance to make that field, we have to play top teams throughout the season because as an independent, the only way to get in (to the tournament) is to play a lot of tough games and win a bunch of them.
"And, if you play a tough schedule and you compete like crazy and don't quite make it, you're getting a feel for what you have to do in the future."
A highlight of the latter part of the schedule is a four-game homestand from Jan. 30-Feb. 13 which includes a visit from nationally-ranked Indiana (Pa.). "We enjoy the opportunity to play at home, which is why we host that opening tournament and tried to get those games here later in the season," said Hunt.
"We want to build a real nice following of people in this area who follow Division II basketball. And for those who are unfamiliar with this level of play, we want to introduce them to a caliber of athletically gifted and talented players in a great atmosphere."