Last year Eastern Mennonite finished 22-5 with a starting lineup of five seniors, including ODAC Player of the Year Todd Phillips. Over their four years, the core went 71-38, gathered three of the program’s ten winning campaigns in 45 years, and earned the only trip the men’s team has ever made to the NCAA Championships.
That group is gone, but hopefully has laid a legacy which this year’s men can pick up. As part of that re-tooling process, however, the Runnin Royals must replace 79% of their offense.
“The reality is, those five changed the culture at EMU,” Dean said of his departed players, which also includes George Johnson, D.J. Hinson, Orie Pancione and Eli Crawford. “I give them all the credit in the world for what’s happened here. But the good news is that we had some kids who were role players the last year or two who on other teams could have been focal points on the offense. So while we lost a lot we’ve got some guys who can do a lot more than what they’ve done.”
Returning players get a chance to shine
Leading the returners is athletic junior Andrew Thorne (Front Royal, VA/Skyline). The 6-4 wing shot 51% from the floor last winter, averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds.
“Andrew is in a zone where he wants to be one of the best players in the league, and I think he has that potential,” said Dean. “He’s just been driven. He’s lifting, he running, he’s just doing all the little things. He’s a prime example of someone who’s put things together off the floor as well. With him, the better student he has become the better player he has become.”
Forward Owen Longacre (Telford, PA/Christopher Dock) is another top returner and the only other returning junior on the roster. Longacre has been nagged by injuries at EMU but averaged 3.2 points and 1.5 rebounds last year. Dean said his 6-6 player just needs to stay on the court.
“His big thing is just staying healthy,” explained EMU’s ninth-year coach. “If he just can practice for a month straight and then string things together, he’s got a chance to be a really solid ODAC player. He’s going to do all those things that get you to the winner’s circle.”
Sophomores looking forward to playing time
Four sophomores remain from last year’s touted recruiting class and all of them should compete for regular minutes in EMU’s up-tempo system. R.J. Sims averaged 4.9 points and 1.7 rebounds while getting a handful of spot starts last year. Adam Burroughs (Roanoke, VA/Northside) (2.2 PPG), Dajon Daniel (Fredericksburg, VA/Mountain View) (2.4 RPG, 1.6 PPG) and Randell Smith (Woodbridge, VA/Garfield) (2.2 PPG) all expect to show marked improvement as they get more playing time.
Because of the departed seniors, this year’s newcomers will also get more playing time than in years past. Some of the new faces have more experience than others, however, as three of the ten on the varsity roster transferred to EMU from prep schools or other colleges and two more are local players who return to hoops after time away from the game.
Headlining the class are 6-6 David Falk (Madison, VA/Madison/Hargrave Military), 6-6 Ryan Yates (Alexandria, VA/T.C. Williams/Massanutten Military) and 6-2 James Williams (Capitol Heights, MD/Archbishop Carroll). 6-7 J.R. Gray (Staunton, VA/R.E. Lee/Mary Washington) could also add to the inside game as the Mary Washington transfer learns the EMU system.
Putting the puzzle together
Even with the added height, Dean won’t slow down the style of play which has turned the Royals in the Runnin Royals.
“When you have depth like that,” he said, “if you can get guys to play as hard as they can play then they are going to need to get a rest. But that’s when the other team has the same guy on the floor and getting more worn out.”
EMU’s coach said the team’s height will add a new dimension this year.
“A key for us is extra possessions,” he explained. “The previous years we’ve done that through turnovers. We’ll still turn some people over, but this year we can also get some of those possessions from offensive rebounds.”
Dean knows that with many of his players finally getting consistent playing time on the collegiate floor there will be growing pains.
“We’re a puzzle that still hasn’t been put together, but has some really nice looking pieces to it,” he said. “I don’t know how good we’ll be in November, but we’ll be so much better in February. So the better we can be in November, the scarier we’ll be in February. We’d be naïve to think we’ll be as good as Virginia Wesleyan and Hampden-Sydney at the beginning of the year, but I’m hoping that by tourney time people are looking at the standings and hoping they don’t have to play us in the postseason.”
Exhibition game, season opener, and more info
The Runnin Royals begin that journey at home, taking on Shenandoah on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The men also have a home exhibition game on Thursday, Nov. 10, where they will play a team of area alumni, including last year’s starters.