By Jeff Kurowski
Young basketball team meets season with all-new starters
The faces change, but the goals are the same for the Green Knight men’s basketball team. Following back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and 20-win campaigns, St. Norbert opened its 2011-12 schedule with a roster that accounted for only 13 starts a season ago. Last year’s graduating class started 297 games over the previous four years. “There were just a lot of unknowns coming into the season,” says head coach Gary Grzesk. “Anytime you lose a group of seniors like we had last year – five starters and your first sub off the bench – roles need to be defined. We had to figure out who was going to play and how we were going to use guys.”
Earning a Midwest Conference Tournament berth, winning the tournament championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament are still the targets, he adds.
“You don’t want to change your expectations just because those guys graduated last year,” says Grzesk. “The expectations are the same. We are still holding these guys accountable for their play.”
The team alternated wins and losses early in the season, before posting a three-game winning streak. The Knights stood two games above .500 at the midseason point. Grzesk has focused more on teaching with this group than with recent teams. “We’ve used the film room as a learning tool much more than in the past,” he says. “We’ve slowed things down in practice a little bit. We’ve really gone to starting at ground zero. It’s really a master learning process where we master one thing before we move on to the next thing. It was slow a little bit at the beginning, but everyone got up to speed where we are able to learn on the floor and on the fly a little bit more.”
Kyle Johnsen, the team’s lone senior, provides leadership for the young squad. The veteran guard from Greendale is in his fifth year with the program. He was a medical redshirt in 2009-10.
“The guys always look up to me to get practices going,” says Johnsen. “Coach puts an emphasis on everyone talking. It’s kind of easy for me because I like to talk a lot and get crazy a little bit. I like to get everyone going; get practices upbeat so we make ourselves better.”
The loss of six seniors created opportunities for the returners and newcomers. Competition is fierce on the practice floor, adds Johnsen. “We are always competing, always battling,” he said. “This is a close-knit team, which is kind of surprising with how young we are and the age differences among some of the players. We have a lot of fun. We get after it in practice every day.”
Among the players with expanded roles as starters this season are sophomores Andy Fox, Brandon Gries and Garrett Thorn, and junior Paul Appleton. “We really didn’t play a ton of minutes, so our roles have changed,” says Fox, a point guard from Hartland. “We are trying to figure out those roles and how to help the team. On this team, everyone has each other’s backs. If we keep working hard, everything will work out fine. Coach Grzesk always puts us in good spots and gets us prepared for games.”
Freshman forward Andrew Schwoerer has emerged as the fifth starter for the Knights. Grzesk acknowledged that the Midwest Conference has traditionally been won by teams with primarily juniors and seniors in the lineup, but will not use inexperience as an excuse. “You just have to work through that,” he says. “I think the good teams tend to get better as the season goes on and continue to learn. Ultimately, you are measured by wins and losses, the final score, but we also really want to concentrate on our quality of play.
“It’s a different group of guys, but it’s invigorating. It’s a different challenge molding this group.”
March 22, 2012