Seven grueling and strenuous weeks of repetition comes to an end with the first official practice today for Mark Johnson and the Fort Hays State men’s basketball team.
Just as the students of Fort Hays strolled to classes for the first time seven week ago, the 16 players brought in by Johnson made their way to Gross Memorial Coliseum each day to work on individual training, conditioning, strength training, and begin figuring out how the Tigers will run this season.
Now in his 15th season at the helm of the program, Johnson says it is bittersweet when the day that has been circled on his calendar for months finally comes.
“It’s always exciting at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said. “When you start your first day of regular season practice, even though we’ve been together awhile and doing a lot of basketball-related things, there’s always that anticipation, excitement for the new season.”
“I think just as the players are excited, the coaches are the same way and ready to go.”
Among the 16 rostered for the ‘15-’16 season includes nine newcomers, including six freshmen and three junior college transfers. Rob Davis and Kenny Enoch come from Pratt and Barton CC, respectively, while Lake Reed makes his way east from Northeastern CC in Colorado.
Four of the Tigers’ freshmen reign from the state of Kansas; Brady Werth, a forward from Hays; Kyler Kinnamon, a guard from McPherson; Aaron Nicholson, a guard from Derby; and Trey O’Neil, a guard from Scott City. Joining the four Kansans is Stefan Krsmanovic, a forward from Serbia, and Emir Sabic, a guard from Croatia.
The Tigers return two sophomore forwards, Drew Kite and Hadley Gillum, along with sophomore guard Kade Spresser. Neither of the three started a game last season, through Kite was the high rebounder on multiple occurrences. Senior forwards Jake Stoppel and Dom Samac are the keys in the frontcourt as both were staples in the Tigers’ game plan last year and among the most consistent shooters on the squad.
The most notable return, however, is the return of All-American guard Craig Nicholson, the older brother of Aaron Nicholson. His junior campaign abruptly ended after 16 games but has rehabbed on pace to return with guns blazing for the start of the season.
As the floor general, he sees the team coming together well to make for a successful senior campaign.
“I think we’ve got a lot of good guys on the team and we’re all coming together good; not just on the court but off the court,” Nicholson said. “I think the chemistry we’re having right now is gonna play a big part of the season we’re gonna have this year.”
With a youthful team competing in one of the toughest basketball conferences in the country, a trying month gives Johnson a chance to prepare his freshmen for the rigors that come with the college level.
“Obviously, there’s gonna be some adversity once the season starts,” Johnson said. “I think to this point, they’ve done a real good job. They work hard, they’re playing hard, I think they have confidence. That’s the line we have to be careful with. All of them, on their teams, (they were) the best player, leading scorer, took the most shots, and the last thing we want to have them do is come on here and play scared, not aggressive. But also, they need to find their role and that’s probably the thing you want to be careful with and not take away their aggressiveness and confidence.”
Coming off a 16-13 season with higher expectations, the Tigers look back at when Nicholson went down as very unfortunate. They had already gotten through the tough part of their MIAA schedule with Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri State in the rearview, though Nicholson went down Jan. 16 against Central Oklahoma just as things appeared to be letting up.
“I just think it was bad timing. That game starting there, everything was starting to look up,” Nicholson said. “Can’t do ifs or what ifs, I just know we’re gonna be ready to go this season.”
Fort Hays State travels to Kansas State and Kansas for exhibition matches in early November, but Johnson says those games are scheduled for the players to have the chance to play “against the Big 12, being in unbelievable arenas and getting experiences our guys normally don’t get.”
Most of the evaluation of players’ roles and learning who will receive redshirts will come from practice and a closed-door scrimmage, but he is confident the preseason will have his team ready for a demanding regular season that begins on Nov. 14 when Southwest Minnesota State comes to Hays to begin a nine-game home stretch.
“We’re gonna have a good preseason. Hopefully our guys will see some caliber of MIAA talent in the preseason by playing those guys,” Johnson said. “The balance of men’s basketball is what makes it so difficult and such a challenge and so exciting.
“We have to learn consistency. There’s not a game you show up — I don’t care if it’s the team that finishes last — you have to come ready to play. That’s probably what separates our league from other leagues. … We have 22 games now instead of 19. All 22 will be battles.”