On Saturday, the Saint Ignatius varsity basketball team will begin its 104th season.
The 104th edition of the Wildcats will be a young, hungry bunch. Led by veteran Brian Becker '77, the Basketball Cats will look to navigate a meatgrinder of a schedule while defining its identity.
This season's roster features only a handful of returning players – only four letterwinners from last season – and a crop of inexperienced, yet talented players. The Wildcats' squad, Becker's 22nd team, is composed of five seniors, seven juniors, and a couple sophomores.
To start the season, two players will lead the way – senior Kevin Davet and junior Chase Toppin.
Toppin enters the year as the squad's top playmaker. Toppin will serve as the point guard, distributing the ball and pushing the pace. Becker calls Toppin "an unselfish player" who can play fast-paced and keep opponents on their toes. The 6'1 guard will be a key leader this year.
In the post, look for Davet to play a huge role. The 6'8 center can gobble up rebounds and play defense well. Davet has worked extensively on post moves and rebounding with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the Saint Ignatius coaching staff. Davet will be relied upon for points in the post.
"Until our team matures a little bit, as far as knowing their responsibilities and roles, those two guys will have to carry the lion's share of the scoring and leadership," Becker said. "We have a nice cast of guys who are extremely capable. Our young guys will be major contributors for us as the season goes on. But early on, for us to be successful, Chase and Kevin have to play well for extended minutes."
Besides Toppin, the Wildcats have a young cadre of guards. Most played on the JV level last season, but many did not.
Lukas Bielek is one exception to the rule. The 5'10 senior contributed at the varsity level last season, mostly in a supportive role. Becker looks to Bielek as an important 2-guard.
"He has the ability to get to the basket and can make a 3-ball," Becker said. "He needs to learn how to play with pace. He can play well off of Chase very well, because he can get into seams."
Besides Bielek, there is one other senior guard – Wilson Young. The Rocky River native played some on JV in 2016-17, but did not make the varsity team last season. Since last year, Young has worked to improve his game, and will look to have significant minutes this season.
The rest of the guards are all juniors. Caleb Blake, Connor Cmiel, Griffin Hanna, Rory McConville, Daniel Nunez, Tommy Spear will all see time at guard this year.
Blake will see minutes as a backup to Toppin at point guard. Blake will often enter the game to allow Toppin to take a breather on the bench, or to move him to the 2 spot for a little break from running the offense. Blake can move the ball effectively and score some.
Nunez and Spear are both shooters. The two juniors can do damage with the ball in their hands, finding open looks and draining shots.
"Tommy and Danny made the team because they can put the ball in the basket. Instead of going with more athletic guys who don't put the ball in the basket, I chose guys this year who put the ball in the basket," Becker said.
Connor Cmiel, Griffin Hanna, and Rory McConville decided to tryout for the team following a first-round exit from the postseason for the Football Cats. All of them made the squad.
Cmiel starred at wideout and corner, Hanna served as the backup signalcaller, and "Money" McConville kicked extra points and field goals will authority this season. These three fast, athletic players all played on JV last season, lighting things up from all over the court. Each player will look to develop into a big playmaker over the course of the season.
"Cmiel, Hanna, and McConville got great experience via football. Multi-sport athletes typically carry a sense of confidence with them," Becker said. "That's spilled over to basketball already."
Outside of Davet, the Wildcats have several experienced players at forward.
Lorez Valenzuela is chief among them. The 6'4 forward is a strong and athletic player. Becker expects the third-year player to have a strong mentality down low in the post on both ends of the court. Valenzuela will play an important role this season, and should see extensive minutes out of the gate.
Darius Moss Jr. is a fellow senior. The big man did not play sophomore year, but played well as a junior last season. Moss will be an influential player down low, grabbing rebounds and utilizing his physical style of play.
An intriguing player to watch will be Henry Raynor. Currently the only sophomore on the varsity squad, Raynor will not be the only second-year student to see time on the top squad. But Raynor might be one of the most talented.
"Raynor is a sophomore who's raw but extremely talented. He has some size, but as all sophomores are, he's gangly and inexperienced," Becker said. "He has a real good motor and is a very coachable kid. He'll be a work in progress, but he's made leaps and bounds since the beginning of the year already. I expect him to provide a 6th-7th-or-8th man role for us, if not starting, depending on matchups."
A YOUNG SQUAD
Coaching a young team presents its challenges for any coach, even an experienced one such as Brian Becker.
The task is made more difficult by high expectations common at a school with such a rich tradition of excellence on the court. The Wildcats enter the year with an overall mark of 1,348-660 (.671) and Becker begins with a 339-162 record (.677).
"Coaching a young team here and coaching a young team other places have two completely different meanings. Here, the bar is set pretty high. It's win or get out. That adds a different pressure when you're coaching a younger team," Becker said. "But to me, it's about being patient with the kids, and them understanding and buying into the process.
"They need to understand their roles and deciding what reputation they want to have. Then, they need to go out and do things to establish the reputation. Do you want to be a hard-nosed rebounding team? Or a team that plays up-tempo? The goals and roles all need to be defined. With an older team, they're usually pretty well defined. With a younger team, it's a process."
In Becker's mind, the 22-game slate is not one season, but three.
"The way I look at it, a third of the season you're trying to figure out who to play. A third of the season, you're trying to figure out what to do with those players who should be in the game. Then you play the last third of the season where you're fine-tuning those guys with what you've learned about them to get ready for the tournament," Becker explained.
One significant change fans will notice is a shifting lineup.
Becker plans to utilize a different lineup each game, depending on the opponent.
"In years past, the lineup has been set. We'll be much more fluid this year," said the 22-year vet. "We'll have more defined roles. I've always been an equal opportunity guy. This year, is a little different. Some guys will have very defined roles, because that's the makeup of our team. You need to have the reins on them a little before you let them loose. They need to know what's acceptable and not acceptable. Chase and Kevin early on will lead. Once the other guys figure it out, we'll be pretty competitive."
As per usual, a host of contenders dot the Saint Ignatius schedule. Here are a few highlights (rankings by Cleveland.com):
• Season opener vs. #14 Lutheran East on December 1
• Home opener vs. #9 Cleveland Heights on December 7
• The Solon Comets of Tony DeCesare '99 visit Sullivan Gym on December 15
• Annual New Year's Eve matchup with #1 St. Vincent-St. Mary, the defending Division II state champs at 2 p.m. in Sullivan Gym
• 100th edition of "The Game" vs. #3 St. Edward on January 11, in the Eagles' nest (Saint Ignatius holds a 54-45 series lead)
• Wildcats travel to play #13 Villa Angela-St. Joseph at the "Purple Palace" on January 21 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day)
• Rich Austin '10 and the John Marshall Lawyers host the Cats on January 31
• #6 Benedictine Bengals and the Wildcats meet for the 25th straight season, this time on February 2 in Sullivan Gym (Saint Ignatius owns 30-19 series advantage)
• St. Edward visits Sullivan Gym on February 8
• Wildcats' seniors play final regular season home game on February 22 vs. Kenston
Overall, here are some notes on the Wildcats schedule:
• 4 opponents reached the Final 4
• 6 foes won District Championships
• 11 opponents reached the District Final
• 11 opponents in the Cleveland.com Top 25 preseason rankings
Here is Coach Becker's take on the schedule:
"To me, this is an extremely challenging schedule. It is what it is. It's a meatgrinder. Each weekend presents its own particular challenge, whether it's a big guy, good guards like at Solon, or Cleveland Heights has a Louisville commit, Garfield Heights has 11 guys going Division I. We'll see what we can do.
"Our guys are eager, willing, and very coachable. Should we have been playing all of these teams? Probably. But this would have been a year to soften the schedule a little bit. But we'll see what happens. Everyone gets into the playoffs. The kids are excited, competitive, and willing to learn. Good things will happen."
The SIBN will have coverage of every game this season. Zack Strom '19 and Kurt Pickering '21 will have the call for Saturday's season opener vs. Lutheran East, with the pregame show starting at 5:45 p.m.
"I'm excited for the season," Becker said. "I know this team will represent Saint Ignatius well."