SELINSGROVE — Three years ago, the Susquehanna men’s basketball team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III tournament.
Two years ago, the River Hawks struggled, but last year Susquehanna took a step in a positive direction, going 16-10.
Now coach Frank Marcinek and the River Hawks are hoping to build back toward national success.
“We took a step back two years ago, and thought last year we were certainly moving in the right direction,” Marcinek said. “We had some big wins in the second half of the season. I do think we carried some momentum over from last year into the offseason. That continued in the preseason. We’re trending in the proper direction.”
Marcinek, who is entering his 31st season as Susquehanna coach, likes a lot of what he’s seen from this season’s team.
“I think our players today are as good, as tough and as unselfish as any I’ve coached,” Marcinek said. “It’s really, really a fabulous group from top to bottom.
“Our guys have worked exceptionally hard, starting with the first day of the offseason. This is a really blue-collar team that works hard. This is maybe as good of chemistry as we’ve had.”
Susquehanna opens the season Nov. 8 at Bethany, and hosts Arcadia on Nov. 12.
More good news for the River Hawks is they return four of their top five scorers from last year in Dominic Dunn, Matt LaCorte, Zach Knecht and Bryce Butler.
Dunn led the team with 11.4 points per game last season as a freshman.
“Dominic works as hard as anybody we have,” Marcinek said. “Unfortunately, he’s been battling a back injury, so I don’t think he’s at 100%. He hasn’t missed any practice time, but is probably not playing at the level he was a year ago. I’m very pleased with what we’re getting from him. I’m hoping that he can stay healthy through the whole year because he can really be a dynamic scorer.”
LaCorte (11.0 ppg) and Knecht (10.7 ppg) also return after averaging double figures last season. Butler scored 9.2 points per game.
“Zack Knecht is a senior who really emerged last year,” Marcinek said. “I’m expecting him to continue to improve his play, as well as provide some leadership for us. Matt LaCorte might have been the most improved player I’ve ever coached from the beginning of a season to the end of a season.
“I think the key for Bryce is to be consistent in all he does. He’s shown some real signs of brilliance. We just need those flashes to happen a little more consistently.”
Knecht said he sees similarities between this year’s team and the team his freshman season.
“Being on that team that went to the Sweet 16, you could tell on that team that you had a chance to be a great team,” Knecht said. “You kind of have that same feeling with this team, that you going to be there to contend for a Landmark championship, which is the goal.
“Everyone has confidence in this team and how deep we are. It’s more exciting because you have a chance. That’s all you want at the end of the day, knowing you can compete with the best teams in the nation.”
The depth of the River Hawks is something both Marcinek and Knecht were pleased with.
“I don’t know that we have five starters,” Marcinek said. “We probably have eight or nine starters. The depth is really a strength. I don’t think it’s all about who starts, but more about who finishes. Our starting line-up is not that important. We have very competitive practices. It’s a true team. We have 20 players on the roster, and from 1-20 everybody gets it. Everybody competes. Everybody knows their role.”
Knecht added: “Our depth is unreal. You can play for five minutes and trust that person coming in behind you. We know how much depth we have. There’s so much trust on this team, and there’s not a lot of personal egos either.”
That depth has also proved dividends in the work ethic of the River Hawks.
“Everyday, you’ll see almost everyone on the team in the gym getting extra work outside of practice,” Knecht said. “It’s great to see them all trying to be the best they can. That’s 1-20, too. ... Practice is very competitive which makes it easier going into games.”
Marcinek said it would be important to score in different ways this season.
“We’re a good shooting team,” Marcinek said. “We’ll need to combine our ability to shoot with our ability to score in the post, or driving the ball with the perimeter guys.”
There is work to be done for the River Hawks to accomplish their goals.
“I think ballhandling has always been a key,” Marcinek said. “When we’ve been good, we’ve handled the ball well. I think we’re much improved defensively from where we were a year ago. But time will tell how far we’ve come. I think ballhandling and defense are the two keys.”
Knecht said he knows it is a long season and not everything will go Susquehanna’s way.
“We need to be able to handle adversity when it happens,” Knecht said. “Going into the season we want to win every game, but there’s going to be ups and downs. We have to bounce back and perservere when we have down games or down times. That will be key for us.”