It’s the middle of January and most students are enjoying the last few days of their winter break, spending time with their family, working, or getting ready for the upcoming spring semester. The 2011-12 men’s basketball team was not enjoying their season up to that point sitting at a very disappointing 6-8 record. They had lost their last four games and were 3-7 against PSAC opponents.
Over the next seven weeks, all they did was win 13 of their final 15 games, losing both to East Stroudsburg, once in the regular season and the other in the PSAC Championship Game. No one wanted any part of coach Damien Blair’s squad, who won their final eight games of the regular season. In the PSAC Tournament, Bloomsburg would be the ninth straight victim in the quarterfinals as the Golden Rams won on the Huskies home court in a convincing manner 83-70.
In the semifinals, West Chester hosted nationally ranked IUP in a match-up that the Crimson Hawks led for most of the way, although they could never put the feisty Rams away for good. West Chester overcame a 13-point deficit midway through the second half, and pulled off the upset in the final seconds as guard Jon Breeden hit a three from downtown to give the Golden Rams a three point victory. Breeden, who will be returning for his senior year, and the Rams came up just short in the championship game against ESU, losing by five and just missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
West Chester finished with a 19-10 overall record in 2011-12 and were 14-8 in conference play, good enough for third in the PSAC East, behind Kutztown and Bloomsburg.
Two senior starters will not be returning this year for the Golden Rams. Guard Khalif Foster, one of West Chester’s most underrated players last year, and forward Lance McDowell, who did some of everything, including leading the Rams in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots.
This year’s squad comes back much more experienced than they were a year ago, and are sporting the confidence from last season’s strong finish to hit the ground running. Three starters return this year along with multiple difference makers off the bench. Breeden will be joined once again in the backcourt by dynamic guard Carl Johnson who is also entering his senior year and forward Corey Blake looks to continue developing into a post threat for the Golden Rams. During his freshman campaign Blake posted very respectable numbers averaging over 10 points and six rebounds per game.
West Chester has a number of returning players who came off the bench last year to provide relief for the starters including: Tim Flecken, Troy Hockaday, Jaleel Mack, Harley Williamson, and Eric Frans.
Mack looks to continue his offensive production as the sixth man as he averaged over 10 points per game last season. Senior forward Williamson can expect more playing time this season following the graduation of McDowell. Junior guard Shannon Givens will be available for the Golden Rams after transferring from Drexel University and sitting out last year. He will provide amazing depth at the guard position for West Chester, giving them four legitimate starters.
There are some news faces on this year’s team consisting of both first-year freshmen and transfers. Two freshmen are on the squad this year and could see some time early in the season, while Coach Blair is figuring out his rotations.
Guard Stephon Baker, from Plymouth Meeting, Pa., has plenty of competition in front of him at the guard position. Forward Matt Wisely, from Emmaus, Pa., is the other freshman on this year’s squad. Two transfers round out this year’s Golden Rams. Junior center Ryan McKeaney transferred from Vermont after spending two years as a Catamount. Forward Tom Sharkey left junior college Cecil College to join the Rams and adds depth at the forward position.
The Golden Rams took a big step in the right direction last weekend when they put a scare into Big Ten contender Illinois losing an exhibition game by only nine points, 75-66. The Rams fell behind early and trailed by 24 at the half but never gave in to the Fighting Illini. They battled their way back and went toe-for-toe with their Division I opponent for the entire second half, outscoring them 46-31. Their comeback was too little too late, but they gained invaluable experience playing on the big stage of Assembly Hall in front of a crowd of over 11,000.
Entering his fifth season at the helm, coach Blair will be looking to take a very deep and experienced West Chester team back to the PSAC Championship Game and this time bring home West Chester’s first PSAC Championship. His team begins its long journey this upcoming Wednesday at home against Chestnut Hill University with the tipoff at 6 p.m.
Riley Wallace is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with a journalism minor. He can be reached at RW718681@wcupa.edu.