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Nov. 2 - BETHANY, W.Va. – With four starters returning from last year’s team that captured the program’s 13th PAC championship, the Bethany College men’s basketball team brings high hopes of repeating as conference champions and making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

In their second season under head coach Andrew Sachs last winter, the Bison finished the regular season in third place in the PAC. However, BC swept through the conference tournament, which included road wins at #2 Saint Vincent and #1 Thiel, to capture the program’s PAC-record 13th league title and advance to the NCAA Tournament, where the Green and White dropped a first round decision 70-58 to Manchester.

With seven overall lettermen back, including four starters, from that 21-8 team, Sachs says the team will have to be ready to take every opponent’s best shot and not be satisfied with last year’s accomplishments to make a return to the national tournament.

“Our returners have embraced the tradition that has been set here since before me,” said Sachs. “The new guys have some catching up to do, but they have worked hard to get ready for the season. Our biggest challenge is to fight through complacency. Winning the conference and making the NCAA Tournament was a great experience for everyone in the program.

“The journey is hard, but we want to get to the point where we not only make the Tournament, but we start winning some games,” said Sachs. “Everyone in the league is going to give you their A game and we’ll see if we’re ready for it.”

The Bison bring back both starters in the backcourt, including point guard Reece Mabery (Natrona Heights, Pa./Highlands). The 6-0 junior averaged 9.7 points during the year, but pumped in 17.7 during the three PAC Tournament wins. He was also a playmaker on defense, leading the PAC in steals with 2.96 and setting a new BC single-game record with 12 thefts in a conference win at Waynesburg.

Behind Mabery will be freshman Taz Larry (Seat Pleasant, Md./Reservoir), who as an All-County player in high school, and junior James Barton (Bethel Park, Pa.), could slide over from his starting spot at the two-guard to provide help as well.

“Reece is back this year and once he got used to the way we played, he excelled,” said Sachs. “He is an outstanding defender and is great at getting in the passing lanes. He missed one game or he would have set the school record for steals.

“Taz will be the primary back-up and he was All-Howard County in Maryland last year,” said Sachs. “He is small, but has a good burst to him, plays with a chip on his shoulder and is a good on-the-ball defender. He will see more time as gets comfortable with what we do. And Barton has proven he play the point in the past, so he could slide over in a pinch.”

Barton will be handling the majority of the duties at the shooting guard position this year after a solid sophomore campaign. He averaged 10.4 points per game, highlighted by a 14-point outburst in the PAC Title game win at Thiel, and also ranked third in the PAC in three-point percentage (43.6). Bethany should enjoy solid depth behind him, with senior Ryan Summers (Sistersville, W.Va./Tyler Consolidated) being the lone veteran and freshmen Delonte’Joyce (Annapolis, Md.) and Taylor Vazquez (Charles Town, W.Va./Washington) also looking for minutes.

“The player who has looked the best in the preseason in Barton,” said Sachs. “We may have to manage him through the year because of his injuries, but I couldn’t be happier with how he came into the season. He is shooting well and came in great shape.

“There are a plethora of players behind him,” said Sachs. “Delonte’ is as advanced as any freshman we have and plays bigger than he is. He was First Team All-Anne Arundel County last year and comes from a program in Annapolis High School that always produces good players. Also providing depth on the wing is Ryan Summers, a senior who came in great shape and is fighting for playing time, and Vazquez, who is a good shooter.”

Also on the wing at the small forward position is junior Nick Wilcox (Venetia, Pa./Peters Township). A Second Team All-PAC selection last season, he ranked 10th in the conference in scoring (13.5), sixth in rebounding (6.8) and fourth in steals (2.10). The 6-3 junior enters the season within striking distance of 1,000 points this year (699) and is already up to eighth on the school’s all-time steals list (131).

Injuries could be a factor at this spot, as Wilcox is recovering from an injury suffered over the summer and freshman Aaron Ashley (Cleveland Hts., Ohio) is trying to get healthy after injuries and illness limited him his senior year of high school. Another freshman, Dylan Gravatt (Franklin, Pa./Rocky Grove), has impressed Sachs with his work ethic so far.

“Wilcox does a little bit of everything for us and is heart beat of the team,” said Sachs. “He is the catalyst and we are a different team when he’s on the floor. He played in Italy over the summer with Division III All-Star team and suffered an injury that we may have to manage through the season, but he will be able to play through it.

“If he can play, Ashley can really shoot it and help us this year,” said Sachs. “Due to a leg injury and then an illness while trying to recover from that, he was limited last year, but averaged 14 points a game in 15 minutes. He still isn’t 100 percent and has been limited so far, but he’s been through so much, I have a lot of respect for him. Dylan is a hard worker. He was the best player by far on his high school team. He has a chance to be pretty good for us and is already competing for time.”

Bethany has a pair of veterans back to handle the four-spot in junior Brady Pacific (Avonmore, Pa./Kiski Area) and sophomore Leslie Addy (Columbia, Md./St. Vincent Pallotti). Pacific averaged 7.0 points last year, but stepped up when he was pressed into the starting line-up following an injury to graduated Ryan McFadden. In the six games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, Pacific scored 9.2 points, including 11 in the title game win at Thiel. Addy played in 25 games off the bench last year and that experience, plus a summer in the weight room, should make him a big contributor to the Green and White this year.

“Brady did an admirable job at the end of last year when the injury to McFadden put him in the starting line-up,” said Sachs. “He is more of a face-up four-man, but has looked good so far. The most improved player is Addy. He will see some time at small forward too, but came in great shape, did a great job in the weight room and is playing with more confidence because he understands more.”

The Bison post will be held down by 6-6 senior British Alexander (Dayton, Ohio/Trotwood Madison). He was named First Team All-PAC and Second Team All-ECAC South Region after leading the PAC and setting a new BC single-season record with 67 blocked shots. In addition, Alexander was 11th in the league in scoring (13.4), second in rebounding (8.8) and seventh in field goal percentage (50.3). Perhaps his biggest game came at the biggest time, as Alexander propelled Bethany to the upset win at Thiel in the PAC title game with 19 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and five rejections.

A pair of newcomers will back up Alexander in 6-6 freshman Ray Neal (Olympia, Wash./River Ridge) and 6-8 Dylan Berger (Canonsburg, Pa./Canon-McMillan).

“British had a great summer and is more vocal in practice and looking to take on more of leadership role this year,” said Sachs. “His shot blocking ability is the best in the league and he is one of the best to set foot in Hummel Field House. His offensive game has expanded and he can face up a little more.

“Behind him will be Ray Neal, who is more of a back-to-the-basket player,” said Sachs. “He got in great shape over the summer, but then a sickness set him back when school first started. He is getting better and will bring physicality to the floor and the more he plays, the more comfortable he will get with what we do. Dylan Berger is 6-8 and is very skilled, but the weight room will be very important to him and he just needs to get used to the college game.”

The solid depth Bethany has amassed will come in very important as the team progresses through the rigors of the PAC schedule. Sachs says talking to other coaches nationally, the reputation of PAC basketball is improving dramatically and the depth of the league will make every night a challenge.

“In talking to coaches at the NCAA Tournament last year who had a chance to watch film on a lot of our games and other league schools, they recognize the PAC is getting better,” said Sachs. “We can’t be as good as last year. We have to better because the league is better.”

For the Bison to repeat as league champions, Sachs believes limiting turnovers, winning the battle on the boards and taking advantage of trips to the foul line will be critical, but also learning how to deal with handling the best every team has to offer each outing.

“We can win the league again if we are up to the challenge of taking every team’s best shot every night,” said Sachs. “We also can’t be satisfied and complacent with last year, so we have to focus on improving every day and every game. I tell my guys all the time if you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse.

“Other keys for our success will be leading the league in rebounding, making free throws and having the lowest turnover ratio,” said Sachs. “Those are our most important stats. We have to do a better job of rebounding at both ends of the floor and taking care of the basketball. Like any team, we aren’t very good right now, but we have to keep improving and focus on playing our best basketball the last three weeks of the season.”