Preparing for act 2: Blue Hawks basketball, wrestling ready for second half of seasons
With most students still on winter break, it officially ended Thursday for the Dickinson State men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Both teams returned to DSU for practices and to start preparing for the second half of their seasons, which begin Saturday with a trip to the University of Winnipeg (Manitoba).
The men play in the Wesmen Classic, an eight-team tournament, while the women take on Winnipeg in back-to-back games over the weekend.
The wrestling team returns to practice on Dec. 30 to prepare for its second half as well. The Blue Hawks travel to Des Moines (Iowa) on Jan. 11 for the NAIA Cliff Keen National Duals tournament.
After having two months of practices and games or matches, the second half of the season is all about building off improvements and competing as hard as they can against its toughest competition of the year.
The men’s team had one of the toughest early schedules in the Frontier Conference. Its first seven games were against Division I and II programs which all ended in losses.
Despite going 0-3 before their first win on Nov. 19 at Valley City State, Blue Hawks head coach Ty Orton said he has been impressed with how his team has improved in several aspects of the game — particularly in defense.
“They’ve started to understand that if you don’t play defense, you just can’t take a chance and maybe the guy makes (his shot), maybe he doesn’t,” Orton said. “That’s the previous level these kids were at. Some could sneak by and say ‘you’re going to miss two out of every three’ here, the players make two out of every three. You have to make sure you’re out there and really pushing them and they’re really buying into the team confidence and that’s what these kids have done.”
The Blue Hawks have a 4-6 record and won their last two games, against University of Jamestown and Winnipeg, before the break. With the overall team improving, Orton said his newcomers like DeSean Atkins, Juston Goodwin, Sean Kelly and Jacob Volk have really stepped up and have been making the most of the minutes they’ve logged.
Atkins has moved up into a starting position recently and averages 5.1 points per game. Goodwin’s game has been heating up and shoots 55 percent from the field. In game against Jamestown on Dec. 13, Goodwin went 6 for 7 and finished with 13 points in DSU’s 97-83 win.
With the depth of the Blue Hawks’ bench and the impact of the younger players, Orton isn’t worried about who could fill in if something happens to a starter.
“Everybody is having some good minutes,” he said. “If one person is rundown or tired, not having a good night, we have somebody else who can step up and that’s what we like about the whole thing.”
The women’s basketball team has already surpassed the public’s expectations of what they could accomplish, including their own head coach.
First-year head coach Mark Graupe said he is extremely proud that the Blue Hawks have won 10 games by Christmas and was a little worried in the beginning of the season of what was in store.
“We come in the second game of the year after beating a team by 23 we lose the next game, I just started wondering, ‘oh no, are we going to even get five wins on the season,’” Graupe said. “That was going through my mind and for us to have 10 wins at Christmas time, be 10-3, I’ll be brutally honest I didn’t know if that was possible. I’m just tickled pink how it’s gone so far. We’re very pleased.”
Last season, the Blue Hawks went 8-20 and were just 4-9 by the break. Over the summer, the team lost their star player, Janae Moore, in a car accident and former head coach Caleb Harrison resigned in September. This year the team has battled its adversities and cruised past the competition.
But with the break over, the Blue Hawks enter the tough portion of the year and begin to play conference opponents. As of Dec. 10, Westminster (Utah), Carroll College (Mont.) and Montana State-Northern were all ranked in the top 25 NAIA coach’s poll, while Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) received votes. Westminster, the No. 3-ranked program, beat the University of Mary, a Division II school, 79-61 on Oct. 30.
The Blue Hawks play three games in a row this weekend, Winnipeg Saturday and Sunday and Brandon University (Manitoba) on Monday.
The remaining schedule for the second half has several back-to-back conference games. Graupe said instead of being intimidated by the strength of schedule, his team will just take it two games at a time.
“We’ll just approach it two games at a time but first things first, the Canadian road trip is going to be tough,” he said. “We’re only taking 10 ladies up there and we got to play three games in a row and who knows.”
Out with the old, in with the new
It’s been a reloading year for the wrestling team, but head coach Thadd O’Donnell hasn’t had much trouble with his younger wrestlers.
If anything, the newcomers and freshmen have been carrying the Blue Hawks throughout the first half of the season.
“For where our team is I thought we did pretty well with the young guys,” O’Donnell said. “You look at the lineup we had a lot of freshmen and new guys compared to last year’s team, so it was a lot of adjustments as far as figuring out where they’re at technique wise and competitive wise. I think we’re making strides up to break.”
The Blue Hawks overall are 2-5 in duals and the biggest focus for the rest of the season is building confidence in the new wrestlers.
O’Donnell has seen progress and the team is not looking at the score, but looking for chances to score. Yet, the frustration levels of the new wrestlers are high after a competitive loss.
Earlier in the year, the Blue Hawks lost two top senior wrestlers, Jesse Hellinger (197) and Brian Klevis (HWT). Hellinger suffered a shoulder separation but is expected to be back after the break. Klevis hurt his MCL which O’Donnell said will be a nagging injury, but is expected to return at some point as well.
“(Klevis) is a tough guy, very mentally tough and this is his senior year so he’s going to try and get as much time in as he can and manage it the best he can,” O’Donnell said.
Having both wrestlers back in time for nationals will help the team. Sophomore Skyler Carroll and junior Meyer Bohn have tried to pick up where Hellinger and Klevis left off.
The team returns to practice on Jan. 1 to get back in competitive shape for the national duals Jan. 11-12 in Des Moines, Iowa. After competing in duals and tournaments, O’Donnell expects his newcomers to apply what they’ve learned and build up their confidence.
“I don’t know where we’re going to end up in the national duals, we’re probably going to get drawn into the brackets,” he said. “But going into the second half we talked to our young guys and said you have some matches under your belt, now it’s time to just take that knowledge and trust your conditioning and go out there and wrestle.”