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A shot at redemption

A shot at redemption

Posted in By Colin

By Chris Roberts
The Lakeland Rustlers men’s basketball team is not the same team that, after going undefeated in the regular season, had their season cut short with two straight losses in the playoffs. Not even close.
Head coach Peter Sambu stepped down prior to the start of this season, and his departure led to a few players leaving, most notably fifth-year point guard and all-conference player Njuguna Waiganjo.
The team has just four players from last year’s squad, but they’ve returned with not only the memory of last season’s collapse, but the desire to accomplish this year what last year’s team should have.
“I’m so excited for this year, last year didn’t end how we wanted to, so this year right away we have to make a statement to show everyone we should have been there (in the championship) and to show everyone we’re going to be there this year,” said a confident Wesley Jones.
Losing Waiganjo hurts, but new head coach Tom Groat is excited to see how the revamped Rustlers adjust once the season gets going on Friday.
“We’re a totally different team (without him), he demands the ball and rightly so,” said Groat. “So without him we distribute the ball a little bit more, guys step up into a bigger role.”
One of those players that will be forced to step up is Jones. And with a number of fresh faces in the locker room, the 6’8 second-year player is taking it upon himself to be a leader.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces this year, we’re all excited to bring them into the family,” said Jones. “Personally I’ve been trying to be a mentor to them, show them how it is to be in this league. They’re excited and they’re willing to do what they have to do.”
Jones, who led the ACAC in blocks last year, is known more for his defensive prowess, but as the team will have quite a different look this year, he hopes the same is true for his game.
“This year I’m trying to change my game a bit, still love defending, still love blocking shots, but trying to be a bit more offensive this year,” he explained during practice on Tuesday night.
While a much different team than last year, they’ll likely still be thought of as the team that won 20 straight games only to lose the two that mattered. Yet that’s a label that both returning players and new players are using as motivation.
“For the players that are coming back, they remember how last season ended after such a stellar season and to end the way it did so suddenly, they want some redemption, the job’s not completed, so there’s that, and the guys that weren’t here, they’re aware of what happened,” explained Groat.
“I think the ingredients are there for a great team. A lot of it is going to come down to team chemistry and how hard they’re going to work towards our ultimate goal which would be an ACAC championship and moving on to a national championship.”
And though the season hasn’t yet begun, the Rustlers may already have the chemistry part down, at least off the court, which is always a positive sign going forward.
“We consider ourselves family, brothers,” said Jones. “It’s really exciting to see how fast and how easy we all got along together.”
Regular season play begins tomorrow as the team hits the road to play a pair of games against Briercrest College and Medicine Hat. As a younger team, it will be an early test for the Rustlers as both Briercrest and Medicine Hat are “laden with a lot of seniors,” said Groat.
“If we play our roles and keep our head in the game for what we need to do to be successful, I think we’ll have a good weekend,” he added.
The Rustlers will return home following the weekend and open up their home schedule with a pair of games next weekend.

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