But Hixon’s crew was not at all discouraged. Indeed, the Jeffs put together the most successful season in the history of Amherst basketball last year. The Jeffs broke the school record for wins in a season with 27 and reached the NCAA Final Four for the first time in school history. Although the season ended on a slightly bitter note-the Jeffs were bounced from the NCAA Tournament by archrival Williams College for the second consecutive year-2003-04 was unquestionably a banner year for Amherst.
This year, much could be written about another stellar triumvirate that Amherst has lost to graduation. Two-time NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Adam Harper ’04 left Amherst as the school’s all-time career steals leader. John Donovan ’04 was, along with Harper, a three-year starter for Hixon and one of the most clutch sharpshooters in Amherst history. Tim Jones ’05E was a first-year starter last year; known primarily as a defensive specialist in his first three years as Amherst, Jones emerged as a genuine force on both ends of the court last year. The class of 2004 was the most successful class in school history with 95 wins over four seasons.
But if last year taught us anything, it is that basketball teams are best judged by the talent they have, not the talent that they are replacing. With that in mind, no one dares call the 2004-05 season a rebuilding year for the Lord Jeffs. Indeed, D3hoops.com has shown its respect for Amherst basketball by ranking the Jeffs 11th in the nation in its preseason poll. Interestingly, although Amherst is the second-ranked NESCAC team, the Jeffs are one spot above Williams. Trinity College was the one NESCAC school to crack the top 10; the Bantams are regarded as the ninth-best team in the country.
Senior co-captains Andrew Schiel and Ray Corrigan are the two familiar faces in Hixon’s starting lineup. Schiel, who was recently named to the Preseason All-America Second-Team by D3hoops.com, is a force both in the paint and around the perimeter. Last year, the 6’7” forward was second in the NESCAC in blocked shots per game (2.10) and 13th in three-point field goal percentage (38.6 percent). Schiel also led the Jeffs in scoring last year with 13.5 ppg. Corrigan, meanwhile, returns as Amherst’s starting point guard. The New York native averaged 4.4 assists per game in his first season as a starter.
In addition to their contributions to the box score, Schiel and Corrigan will also be counted on for their presence off the court.
“The one issue I had about the team is whether we’d get enough leadership from our senior captains, but thus far [Corrigan and Schiel] have really stepped up,” said Hixon.
Although technically a new face in Hixon’s starting lineup, swingman John Bedford ’06 has as much talent and experience as anyone on the Jeff roster. Bedford is equally adept at driving to the basket and at knocking down a perimeter jump shot.
Russell Lee ’05 will be the team’s starting shooting guard this season after spending last year as Corrigan’s backup. Lee developed into a true offensive force during the postseason last year and should have little trouble in his transition to the two-guard position.
Junior forward John Casnocha completes the starting lineup. Casnocha missed the second half of last season due to injury, but he is another Amherst big man who has three-point range and will be critical to the Jeffs’ success this year. “When [Casnocha] is playing well, we are tough to beat,” said Hixon.
Depth will also be a strong point for the team this year. Sophomores Tim McLaughlin, Dan O’Shea and Dan Wheeler have all improved greatly over the past year and should see plenty of minutes off the bench. O’Shea will be brought in to add some size to the Jeff frontcourt, while McLaughlin and Wheeler are versatile players who can be used in all sorts of situations. Fellow sophomores Jason Tucker and Dan Fisher also return from last year’s squad and will compete for playing time.
Hixon will also bring several promising first-years into the fold this season. First-years Andrew Olson, Kevin Hopkins, Matt Goldsmith, Brandon Jones, Fletcher Walters and Blake Murphey are all likely to make the roster this year. Olson and Hopkins figure to have the most immediate impact, as they can potentially fill positions of need for Hixon. Olson is a strong candidate to be Corrigan’s primary backup at point guard, and the 6’9” Hopkins could well make an early contribution to the Jeff front. Keith Zalaski ’06 and Mike Salerno ’07 are other possibilities at the backup point-guard position.
“We’ve lost some quickness from last year, and obviously Harper is going to be hard to replace,” said Hixon in assessing the difference in his team from this year to last. “But, we are bigger and stronger. We still expect to run the floor, and we still expect to shoot a lot of threes.”
Amherst will open the season as host of the Ken Wright ’52 Memorial Invitational this weekend. However, Amhert’s first real test will come in early January, when the Jeffs play four consecutive road games against The College of New Jersey, Williams, Wesleyan University and Trinity.