Dale Wellman thought he might have to deflate some egos once his Nebraska Wesleyan men’s basketball team started practice in its quest to defend its NCAA Division III national championship.
To his players’ credit, that hasn’t been an issue.
“I think they’ve approached it like they have every other year,” said Wellman, entering his fifth season as Wesleyan’s coach. “This year we’ve talked about embracing the fact that we have a big X on our back.”
Wesleyan opens its regular season at home against Grinnell on Thursday at 7 p.m.
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Wesleyan wasn’t ranked much of last season before winning its first national title in March. This year, with four starters back, the Prairie Wolves are top-ranked in the preseason polls.
All four returning starters averaged more than 13 points a game last season for a team that averaged 95.5. The Wolves also made an average of 11.9 3-pointers per game.
“Being national champions from last year hasn’t changed much,” said junior Nate Schimonitz, an Omaha Creighton Prep grad who was the team’s top scorer last year at 17 points a game. “It doesn’t affect what we do every day in practice.”
According to D3hoops.com, Schimonitz is a third-team preseason All-American, as is senior teammate Cooper Cook. Ryan Garver is a second-team preseason All-American, while Jack Hiller is the other returning starter.
While the Prairie Wolves also return many of their key reserves, they have added Clay Reimers and Cordell Gillingham, a pair of transfers who started last season at Concordia. Wellman said the 6-foot-7 Reimers will be in the starting lineup and will play on the perimeter, giving Wesleyan even more length outside the paint.
“He doesn’t have experience with us, but he’s an experienced player,” Wellman said of Reimers, who averaged 15.6 points last season. “Adding those two gives me a problem I’m glad to have. I think we’re going to have great depth. I have a lot of different options to throw out there.”
Added Schimonitz: “Before they joined us, they had friends on the team. And they’re both really easy guys to play with.”
Wesleyan’s opener is against a Grinnell team that averaged 111 points and was second in Division III in scoring last season. The Prairie Wolves beat Grinnell, a team that aggressively presses to force a fast tempo, 121-103 in Iowa last December.
Wellman knows taking care of the ball will be key Thursday.
“Grinnell’s a little different machine. We’ve learned we have to throw what we normally do out the window when we play someone like Grinnell,” Wellman said. “They’re so different in what they look to do.”
In other Midlands notes:
» UNK improved to 7-0 in five-set matches this season when it beat Northwest Missouri on Saturday, giving the Lopers the MIAA regular-season title. The MIAA tournament began Tuesday, with the semifinals and final set for this weekend. Kendall Schroer had a career-high 24 kills in Saturday’s win for the Lopers, who are ranked third nationally in NCAA Division II.
» On the eve of the NSIC volleyball tournament, Wayne State upset eighth-ranked Concordia-St. Paul in four sets Saturday as Katie Stephens matched a career high with 20 kills and Alyssa Ballenger added a career-high 18 kills. Concordia-St. Paul has won nine of the past 11 Division II national titles.
» The GPAC volleyball tournament semis are Wednesday with Midland at Dordt and Hastings at Northwestern. The final is Saturday. In the quarters, Midland edged Jamestown in four sets as Priscilla O’Dowd had a single-match school record 28 kills.
» In junior college volleyball, North Platte lost its District G playoff two matches to none to North Dakota College of Science.
» The Bellevue men’s soccer team became the first program in school history, in any sport, to go unbeaten for a regular season. The 16-0-2 Bruins, ranked sixth nationally, begin play at the A.I.I. tournament in Georgia on Friday.
» Concordia will play Hastings in the GPAC women’s soccer tournament final on Thursday, while the men’s soccer semifinals were Tuesday and the final is Friday.
» Western Nebraska’s men’s basketball team, ranked 14th in the NJCAA preseason poll, knocked off No. 3 Southern Idaho 105-102 Friday to improve to 2-0. Husker commit Jervay Green is averaging 26.5 points and 7.0 assists for the Cougars.
» Dordt won the men’s and women’s titles at the GPAC cross country invitational Saturday at North Bend. Hastings was second in the women’s standings.
» Central Community College is adding women’s soccer beginning next fall, which will be the junior college’s seventh athletic program. The Raiders are searching for a coach to lead the new program.