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Mens varsity basketball: Halfway to the peak

11 December 2013 No Comment

It would be too easy to say it’s been an uphill battle for the Mountaineers.

But for anyone who’s been watching Mohawk men’s basketball team, it simply hasn’t been the case.

The men have soared to a 7-2 record as they reach the mid-way point of the season, including a 10-0 preseason record.

That preseason included a win against cross-town opponents McMaster University, who currently sit in first place in the OUA West Division. It was their first win in the third exhibition match against a strong Marauder squad, and put spectators on notice as to how well this team could play.

“It was some early validation for us that we have a strong group that is going to be able to compete with anyone in the country,” said Head Coach Brian Jonker.

And so far, that has certainly been the case, as the men have averaged a league-high 94.2 points a game, while only allowing 79.7 at the other end of the court.

A big reason for the team’s success has been the cohesion of this unit. The starting five of Xzennis Brereton, Alex Reis, Andrew Cicuttini, Taylor Dowhaniuk, and Matt Fennell have been playing like they grew up together. Add in Patrick Ivarone, Jeff Hunt, and Jaelin Bailey off the bench and you have a lethal squad that is likes to win, regardless of who is putting up the points.

“A great deal of our success over the past two years can be attributed to the togetherness of this group,” said Jonker about the unit. “They are very unselfish and enjoy being around each other.  They truly do not care who scores as long as we win.”

This team-first mentality has been exhibited by the unique style of offence Mohawk runs. The team uses no true point guard, as Matt Fennell only switched into the position this year, being listed as a forward on his last team at the University of Prince Edward Island.

At 6’5, he looks more forward than guard, until you watch how confident he is with the ball in his hands, and how comfortable he looks pulling up a fast-break at the 3 point line to casually drain one.

Fennel isn’t even responsible for bringing up the ball, as almost anyone on the court can initiate the offense. It’s not unusual to see big men like 6’9 Dowhaniuk advancing the ball to break the press, while players like Fennell and Cicuttini get an opportunity to get open.

It’s this versatility that’s made Mohawk the most lethal offense in the OCAA, and led Fennell to an impressive 24.3 points a game, 3rd in the league.

This style of play has been a drastic change-up since the departure of CCAA All-Star Manny Campbell, who was the team’s point guard last year. Campbell was more of a true point guard, with a pass-first mentality.

So far Coach Jonker is optimistic about the change-of-pace, noting they’ve been getting to the net more often this year.

“It is a bit of an experiment and only time will tell.  We actually don’t play anyone with point guard experience.  We are finding other ways to advance the ball and run our offense.  So far I don’t think it has been worse.  We are actually averaging 10 more points a game this year than we did last year.”

It’s these types of changes that have kept opponents on their heels all season, and made Mohawk real contenders in the Provincial and National tournament. They currently sit 9th in the Canadian rankings, and 3rd in Ontario.

But it hasn’t been all leisurely hikes for the Mountaineers, who have been served two losses this season, one from St. Clair and the other from Fanshawe.  In both games, the team shot miserably, only shooting 31.2% in their most recent loss against the Falcons. That is a far cry from their league-leading field-goal percentage of 46.9, and shows the team still has work to do.

“You realize real fast that if you don’t play your best in our division you can get beat,” said Jonker. “Both St. Clair and Fanshawe played well against us and deserved to beat us.  We must play with energy and be prepared every night.”

After the rough loss to Fanshawe on Nov. 29th, the team rebounded and did just that against the powerhouse of the conference Sheridan Bruins. The Mountaineers has something to prove against the first-place, undefeated Bruins, for several reasons. This was the same team to knock the favoured Mountaineers out of the OCAA semi-finals last year, led by the lethal 35 point shooting performance of Trevor Williams.

But the real motivating factor was that Sheridan was looking like the team to beat this year, topping the National Rankings. If Mohawk wanted any chance of winning the OCAA West division, this win was a necessity.

“It was a far more important game for us than Sheridan,” said Jonker. It again confirmed that we can beat anyone, but more importantly, if we had lost there is a very good chance that Sheridan would win the division.  I can’t see them losing 3 or 4 games in the second half so that game was a must for us.”

The men did just that, in a stellar 111-106 win over Bruins at the David Braley Athletic & Recreation Centre. The game was a constant back-and-forth battle, with the Mountaineers just behind at half 55-52. But Mohawk controlled the second half, led by some monstrous, tone-setting dunks by Taylor Dowhaniuk, who finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, and the astronomical 44-point performance of Matt Fennell. The game was truly a crowd-pleaser, full of highlight-reel dunks, dagger 3-pointers, and stifling defense. It also put the rest of the OCAA on notice that Mohawk was in it for the long haul.

“It will be a real challenge this year with the OCAA championships being at Sheridan,” Jonker concedes. “But if we continue to improve we feel we have the personnel to make a run at it.

Jonker notes that staying healthy and improving on defense are keys to success in the second half of the season, which starts back up January 8th when Niagara College comes to town to take on the home team.

Until then the Mountaineers are just sharpening up their tools, ready to reach the summit.

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