Ryan Faulkner ’03, Pat Fitzsimons ’03 and Steve Zieja ’03, Amherst’s all-time scoring leader and the co-Division III New England College Player of the Year in 2003, provided the nucleus of the Jeff team for the past three seasons and must now be replaced. If last year was defined by the familiar, this season looks to be measured by change.
“We’ve lost the granite pillars of our program over the last four years,” said Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75.
Despite the critical losses from the Class of 2003, Hixon still has plenty of talent at his disposal, and the Lord Jeffs’ national ranking of 14th in a D3hoops.com preseason poll is evidence of that fact.
Senior tri-captains Adam Harper and John Donovan return as two-year starters and will be counted on to replace the scoring and leadership provided by last year’s senior class. Harper, a 6’3” swingman, was named NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year and Second-Team All-NESCAC last season after leading the conference in steals. Shooting guard Donovan provides the Jeffs with their most potent three-point threat.
Junior Ray Corrigan will round out Hixon’s backcourt at the point position. Corrigan actually started the first several games of his Amherst career back in 2001 when Harper was temporarily sidelined due to injury, and the New York native saw significant action in subsequent games backing up Faulkner.
The frontcourt is where the team seems to have the biggest question marks, as Hixon must replace two dominating players in Zieja and Fitzsimons. 6’7″ forward Andrew Schiel ’05 will man one frontcourt position. When on, Schiel is a genuine inside-outside threat who is as offensively explosive as any player in the league. He showed his abilities in last year’s Elite Eight loss to Williams with a game-high 22 points. Schiel struggled with his consistency last year, but that may have been the result of playing through injuries.
Tri-captain Tim Jones ’04 rounds out the starting lineup. Of the starting five, Jones is probably the least experienced in terms of court time. Over the past two seasons, he has proven himself to be an excellent interior defender, but Jones must develop his offense now that he is moving into a starting role.
Beyond Schiel and Jones, however, Hixon is unlikely to give significant playing time to any “classic” big men. At 6’6″, sophomore John Casnocha has the height to play the post, but his body frame and athletic disposition make him better suited to play on the perimeter. Hixon will thus use a “traditional” lineup to start games and then substitute in more perimeter players to take advantage of his team’s athleticism.
“I think the strength of this team is its overall quickness,” said Harper. “We are looking to out-run a lot of our opponents this year.”
John Bedford ’06 will likely be the first to spell wingmen Harper and Donovan. Russell Lee ’05 will be the primary backup at the point guard position this year. Apart from Casnocha, Bedford and Lee, a host of first-years including Dan Wheeler and Dan O’Shea, should see time off the bench.
“The change is exciting,” said Hixon, who later explained, “We are going to start out about 50/50 between traditional Amherst basketball and this new, smaller look.”
Amherst begins its season this weekend by hosting the third annual Ken Wright ’52 Invitational, but won’t begin its NESCAC schedule until January. Defending national champion Williams returns a good portion of last year’s title team and is considered the top team in all of Division III. Trinity College is another potent team in the talent-filled NESCAC.
The Jeffs remain optimistic. “Our goals are to win our third NESCAC Championship in four years, to advance to the NCAA Final Four, and then win two games on NCAA Championship weekend,” said Harper.