BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
After finishing with a record of .500 the last two years, the Fort Hays men’s basketball team is looking for improvement and consistency going into the upcoming season. Coach Mark Johnson said that he would like to see not only better defense and offense but improvement in his younger players as well.
“We played a lot of freshmen last year. You want to see that improvement from their freshman year to sophomore year, and I think we’ve definitely seen that from preseason practice,” he said.
Twelve players will return for the 2021-22 season. Their level of experience ranges, like Kaleb Hammeke and Quinten Rock, who were two key players last year as freshmen, along with sophomore Bjarni Jonsson who was one of the starting forwards for the Tigers. Hammeke was named MIAA Freshman of the Year at the end of last season.
“It’s something to build on for this year. I had good guys around me last year and a lot of them are coming back this year,” Hammeke said.
Johnson said their team should be improved based on the experience players like Hammeke and Rock gained a year ago. He also noted the return of Nyjee Wright and Gabe Pieschl, a junior and sophomore, who were both injured last season.
Wright was one of the top players during the 2019-20 season, but due to his injury only played in nine games last year.
“It was definitely a learning experience, being out most of the season,” Wright said. “My teammates helped me get through it and this year I’m excited to be back and ready to compete with these guys.”
The top returner with the most experience is senior Jared Vitztum. Vitztum took a redshirt year in the 2016-17 season and was granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, making this his sixth season here at Fort Hays. Last year, Vitztum led the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots.
“Jared was first-team all-conference, and I feel like he’s playing at an even higher level than he was a year ago,” Johnson noted.
“It’s just another opportunity to play basketball. It’s what I’ve always loved to do,” Vitztum said. “Hopefully we can end it right for me and build on it for the next couple of years for the other guys.”
He also commented on what the team can accomplish this year.
“I think we have the team to do about anything that we want,” he said. “I think we can compete for a conference championship and we have the ability to be in the NCAA tournament and go as far as we want.”
Along with the experience, having twelve returners also means having players that know each other and know how to push each other. This is something that Hammeke noted.
“We got really close as a team last year,” Hammeke said. “Everyone’s competing every day in practice so it should be a good year and a lot of fun.”
They have the experience, so Johnson said that now his team is focused on just getting better and keeping consistent throughout the season. Their goal now at the beginning is just to work hard every day, and the true end goals will come later.
“I think the goal at this point in the year is to be consistent in effort, intensity, physicality, coaching, and try to get better every day,” he said. “If we do those things, all the goals that we could set right now we will achieve, but let’s worry about those basic things before we get into what the final destination is.”
As for the team’s mentality, Wright summed it up with one word: win.
“That’s what we want to do. We come out every day in practice trying to win each drill and everything we do, so that’s definitely our goal, to win,” he said.
The Tigers will start the season with the MIAA/GAC Challenge, playing two games at home on November 13 and 14, against Arkansas Tech and Southwestern Oklahoma State.