It's a season of opportunity for the Judson University men's basketball team.
The Eagles return one starter from last year's unit that went 10-21. And that means opportunities to make an impact are in abundance.
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"We're mixing some older players with newer players," first-year Judson coach Joel Cotton says. "We have a lot of new faces that will see time and we have some seniors that will play bigger roles and will need to step in and get used to being counted on a little more."
Senior 6-foot-7 post player Anthony Ahlers is the lone returning starter. However, seniors Bob McCarthy (5-10, guard), Nick Morgan (5-10, guard) and Jason Roy (6-7, forward, Wheaton Academy, Bartlett resident) will step into starting roles as will freshman Turner Schwarz (6-4, small forward).
"Those seniors came off the bench last year and also started sporadically," says Cotton, who was an assistant coach at Judson the previous three years.
Bartlett High School products and Judson juniors Luke Labedzki (6-2, shooting guard) and Frankie Cleope (5-10, point guard) figure to make impacts, as will freshmen Luke Pearson (6-0, guard) and Alex Graupmann (6-8, post).
"It's going to take us a little time to come together, but we will build throughout the season," Cotton says. "We have a good team here. There's a good team atmosphere. They've bought into the concept of being a group. The work ethic has been very good so far and that attitudes are great. It's been very encouraging. You can build off a good team atmosphere like we have."
Ahlers, a returning all-CCAC player, and Roy give the Eagles experience on the blocks.
"Anthony is an all-conference player and Jason has played three years for us," Cotton says. "These guys have been through the battles. They know what it takes to win. They are two of our most productive players."
Cotton likes the fact scoring will likely come from a host of different sources. "We have guys that can score," he says. "Everybody is capable of contributing something. We have depth. We have a solid nine guys that can play. We don't have anybody that will be scoring 25 points a game, but we have a lot of guys that can score."
Cotton benefits from the fact he's been in the program for three seasons and is not coming into the head coaching position with roster unfamiliarity.
"I know these guys," he says. "I was fortunate that I was able to recruit the freshmen we have. I got the head coaching job early enough for that to happen."
Cotton says the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference will increase in difficulty this season after the conference combined all its teams into one division.
"The conference will be very difficult," he says. "It's a combined conference now of (NAIA) Division I and Division II teams. We inherited Top 25 programs in Saint Xavier and Olivet Nazarene and St. Francis looks tough. Those teams are in the conference now. Cardinal Stritch is preseason No. 5 in NAIA Division II. We're going to look to keep up. We were .500 last year and I think we can definitely make it a goal to stay in the middle and be in that Top 5 teams category hopefully by the end of the year."
Judson recently opened the season against IU-Kokomo and lost 70-63. "We played hard," Cotton said. "We didn't start out very well. I think we had a lot of first game jitters. We had three freshmen playing and other guys playing bigger roles. There was a little nervousness. We'll get better as the season goes on."
Judson heads north to Deerfield Friday and Saturday to play in the Trinity International Classic. The Eagles play Mount Mercy (Iowa) on Friday at 4 p.m. and Viterbo on Saturday at 2 p.m.
The Eagles open conference play next Wednesday in Milwaukee against Cardinal Stritch.