With a versatile lineup and the advantage of being a relative unknown on their side, the Linfield Wildcats take a fresh approach, an overhauled roster, and a new, yet experienced coach into the 2013-14 men's basketball season.
Picked to finish eighth in the Northwest Conference this winter on the heels of a program-worst 4-21 season last year, the Wildcats have just one direction to head: Upward and onward.
Bringing more than a decade's worth head coaching experience from the California junior college system to his “dream job” at Linfield, new coach Shanan Rosenberg says building the program back up to its halcyon days of the 1970s and '80s is a realistic goal and a challenge he relishes.
“We want to establish a culture, a bond and a direction with a new voice,” Rosenberg said on the eve of the team's season-opening game. “We're going to try to win a championship and vie to get one of the conference playoff spots.”
Linfield's last NWC title came in 2000-01, a season in which the Wildcats went toe-to-toe with NWC rival Lewis & Clark, a fellow NCAA playoff-qualifying team that featured Rosenberg as an assistant coach. Drawing from his coaching experience within the NWC, Rosenberg understands it's going to take a concerted effort by coaches, players, administration and fans to raise the program's profile and winning percentage. Yet he firmly believes Linfield is a sports-crazy school just waiting to embrace a successful basketball program.
“Linfield has not only a terrific history and tradition in basketball, but great pride,” Rosenberg said.
Fans attending Linfield basketball games this season can expect a hard-working, no-nonsense club. Though Linfield's roster lacks height and documented scoring, the Wildcats could prove to be a difficult puzzle for opposing coaches to solve.
How will Rosenberg measure his team's success during his first season?
“If we're playing our best basketball in February, if our team is closer together, if our program is more established ,and we have recruits on board to better our talent pool in the years ahead, then we'll feel like it was a very successful season.”
The frontcourt features holdovers Chris Dirks, Forrest Paxton and Chris Crowell, plus newcomer Mason Rodby. All four have made great strides during preseason drills and are each capable of contributing in a variety of ways.
Nick Cantonwine and Cody Jurgens, two quick, athletic forwards with scoring punch, return to the program, alongside freshman Jackson Gion.
Three junior college transfers, namely Adam Myren, Vinnie Toor and Tim Friday, give Rosenberg added collegiate experience. Myren and Toor are gifted shooters who can fill the hoop when necessary.
“I expect all of those guys to contribute quite a bit in our scoring potential and versatility.”
Combination guards Ryan Potter, Tanner Brill, Ryan Cali join senior Cory Hendryx in the backcourt. All can shoot, pass and handle the ball well, said Rosenberg, who plans to mix-and-match his lineup to suit the situation. Returning sophomores Kevin Hurley and DeQuam Walls are also capable of seeing action.
“I'm a very personnel-oriented coach. We want to put our players in a position to be All-Americans and all-conference and accentuate their strengths and our team strengths,” said the coach. “If we're highly efficient with speed, we want to do that. We want to be disruptive on defense, efficient and effective on offense, with low turnovers, great shot selection, a balanced attack, and playing a brand of basketball that leads to success.”
Lacking much height – Paxton is Linfield's tallest player at 6-foot-8 –
Rosenberg is not be adverse to putting five guards on the floor at the same time.
“Our strength is going to be our versatility,” he said. “We're going to be disruptive defensively. Our togetherness and how hard our kids play is going to make us a tough out.”
One thing is for certain: The Wildcats won't repeat their last-place conference finish of a year ago. Should everything fall into place, a winning season is certainly within reach.
“I don't believe we'll beat ourselves,” said Rosenberg. “We're going to present some things at both ends of the floor that will be difficult for our opponents. We'll be well prepared.”
And with something to prove along the way to restoring Linfield basketball's winning reputation, the Wildcats may reveal a competitive side that people have overlooked.
“These kids are hungry to win and they are learning how to win. I expect our togetherness, toughness and attention to detail will pay off of us in time.”