2020-21 Record: 17-9 overall, 14-6 GPAC (T-3rd)
Head Coach: Ben Limback (at CUNE: 136-106, eight years; career: 251-264, 17 years)
Returning Starters: F Ryan Holt; G Carter Kent; G Sam Scarpelli; F Gage Smith; G Justin Wiersema.
Other Key Returners: F Noah Schutte; G AJ Watson; F Klay Uher.
Key Newcomers: G Brad Bennett; G Garrett Seagren; F Tristan Smith; F Skyler Woita.
Key Losses: F Cory Davila; G Grant Wragge.
2020-21 GPAC All-Conference: Justin Wiersema (First Team); Carter Kent (Second Team); Gage Smith (Second Team).
The top seven scorers from last season return to form the nucleus of a roster that just might be the most talented and seasoned for the Concordia Men’s Basketball program since the 2004-05 season that resulted in a national championship game appearance. The national buzz seems to be lacking, but there’s a quiet confidence within the locker room. Any team that can roll out Carter Kent, Gage Smith and Justin Wiersema has the potential to be special.
Head Coach Ben Limback doesn’t seem to mind if his team floats just a bit under the radar in the preseason – but it really shouldn’t. Last season, the Bulldogs swept the regular season series from Northwestern (GPAC tournament champion) and came within an eyelash of doing the same to Jamestown (NAIA national quarterfinalist).
Said Limback, “We know that we have some good things in place. I think the league will be very competitive as usual. There are other teams that return guys from last year too. We might be under the radar and I’m okay with that. We talked at practice about how every team in America wants to make nationals and they feel like they can. It’s about the sweat and the hard work that you put in on a daily basis. This team gets that. They’re not going to take anything for granted.”
The program really turned the corner down the stretch of the 2019-20 season when it went on a seven-game winning streak, captured the GPAC postseason championship and earned a bid to the national tournament. Had the national tournament field remained at 64 last season (as originally planned), Concordia might be talking about back-to-back appearances on the national stage. All last season’s abbreviated postseason did was make this team anticipate 2021-22 even more.
Not only do all three All-GPAC honorees from last season return, starters Ryan Holt and Sam Scarpelli made the decision to take advantage of their extra “COVID” year. Yes, all five starters are back. Foremost among them is Wiersema, who rose to the level of First Team All-GPAC last winter. The 6-foot-3 guard from Loveland, Colo., can do it all. Last season he averaged 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting an impressive 55.6 percent from the floor.
Wiersema entered the program in the fall of 2018 along with the likes of Kent, Smith and Klay Uher. Said Wiersema, “We’ve been together throughout the whole four years. We’re all really great friends. We all spent two years in the dorms together and we see each other every day. It’s a tight bond. We’re almost brothers. I want to see everyone succeed – everyone wants to see everyone succeed. It’s awesome to see the improvement our team has made from player to player.”
Kent has proven he can fill it up. His 1,145 career points and 180 career treys are most of anyone on the active roster. He’s been a starter and a dependable performer from day one. Meanwhile, Smith blossomed last season while becoming one of the top rebounders in the GPAC. At 6-foot-6, Smith’s ability to score inside and out makes him a difficult matchup. Scarpelli started all 26 games last season at point guard and the muscular Holt contributes in many areas.
Limback isn’t guaranteeing that the starting lineup will be exactly the same as last season. Uher and AJ Watson have the most experience among the returning reserves. Limback raved about the progress of Watson, a 5-foot-8 guard who can score, pass, handle the ball and play defense. He averaged 5.0 points per game last season while Uher contributed 4.4 points. In the post, Noah Schutte has the ability to make a significant jump in his second year in the program. Schutte amassed more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his high school career.
“It’s a true blessing to have your most talented players also be your guys that are the hardest working,” Limback said. “They have a hunger each day to get better and that sets the tone. They come in and they know we didn’t do what we wanted to do last year. There’s something to prove. Each one has individual goals, but they know ultimately, they want to help our team achieve success that maybe we’ve never had before. Those three (Kent, Smith and Wiersema) are special and so is the entire class. We have eight seniors, including Sam and Ryan. It’s a special group.”
The depth does not stop there. Limback will have the option of going deeper into the bench than he has in years’ past. Watch out for transfers Garrett Seagren (Chaminade University) and Skyler Woita (St. Gregory). In addition, Gage Smith’s younger brother Tristan brings with him the right amount of skill and athleticism to compete for immediate playing time. Additional returners such as Nick Cito and Tanner Wubbels possess varsity playing experience.
It would be reasonable to expect that the Bulldogs will again be a perimeter-oriented offensive team. Last season, Concordia outnumbered its opponents in 3-point field goals, 276-204, and ranked second in the GPAC in 3-point field goals per game. Three-point marksmanship and strong team chemistry should lead to plenty of wins this winter.
Said Wiersma, “The five starters who are coming back have a lot of chemistry together. We always play together. Everyone knows where they need to be at all times. Everyone knows their role. I feel like when someone new comes in they know what to do too.”
The Bulldogs were especially dominant inside Friedrich Arena last season, going 9-1 in GPAC home games. Eight of those nine wins were decided by double digits. The only defeat came at the hands of Morningside. It could be jokingly said that new assistant coach and former Morningside standout Ryan Tegtmeier was brought in to help solve the Mustangs. Tegtmeier replaced Lance Korell as the lead assistant.
In 2021-22, Concordia Men’s Basketball will be no joke. The Bulldogs are rallying around a theme of “All In.” Limback has scheduled appropriately with a challenging nonconference run as part of a back-to-normal 30-game regular season schedule. There’s a trip to Daytona Beach, a Concordia Invitational Tournament at home and a whole lot more to look forward to.
“Our team as a whole shoots more threes than most other teams so that extra time put in away from practice has been an emphasis with our guys,” Limback said. “Defensively, we aren’t going to have a 6-10 rim protector so we have to get better at keeping the ball in front and rotating to prevent easy baskets. This should be a very fast and hard-working team. Offensively, we need to share the ball and understand how to make the simple plays. This team is pretty fun to watch and coach.”
There’s a feeling that Concordia “left some meat on the bone” last season. The Bulldogs do not want to let that happen this winter. Says Wiersema, “I feel like a lot of things could have went differently (last year). My sophomore year, going to the GPAC championship and playing in that atmosphere was unbeatable. Going to the national tournament was even more insane. I know for a fact everyone wants to get back there. We’ve all been in that atmosphere and want to get back just as much.”
The 2021-22 season will open at the Hastings Classic (Oct. 29-30) with matchups against Friends University (Kan.) and Presentation College (S.D.). Concordia will make its first home appearance when it hosts the Cattle Classic on Nov. 5-6.