New additions big plus for Wildcats

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For only winning seven games last season, the NMU men’s basketball team comes into the 2008-2009 season with surprisingly high hopes.

Though he said he might be talking optimistically, junior guard Chris Warner said this team has all the factors to be a contender for the national tournament.

“Game to game and the overall season, I expect nothing but the best from our team,” he said. “I mean, with the talent that we have, I don’t feel we should lose any games at home and we should take care of business on the road. I have nothing but high hopes for this team.”

Head coach Dean Ellis said, in order for this team to fulfill those hopes, the Wildcats must forget the failures of last season, and focus on the future.

“I don’t even know what happened last season,” Ellis said. “When somebody asked me about last season I said, ‘Why don’t you just compare it to the 1932 team because it really doesn’t make any difference.'”

The comeback ‘Cats

One of the major factors for the Wildcats is the depth added to their lineup. With this depth the returning seniors are playing more role orientated positions.

“We have more all-around talent,” Warner said. “Last year we were lacking with players. This year, we have a whole bench, and guys that can step in and play. I have as much faith as I do in our starters, as in our bench – our bench mob.”

This year’s bench mob is led by senior Eric Sirrine who will share time with fellow classmate and starter, Kyle Greene, in the center position.

And Sirrine is already making an impact. He logged 27 minutes in the 79-74 win against the University of Minnesota-Duluth on Sunday. In the closing minutes of the second half, Sirrine hit a three-pointer from the top of the arch to put the ‘Cats up 73-70, and he followed it with two blocks, to prevent a Duluth comeback.

“I think I just kind of bring a bit more fire into the game,” Sirrine said afterwards. “You bust your butt on both ends and if you don’t, you’re on the bench. So you’ve got to go out there and play hard for 40 minutes or however long you’re in there for.”

Sirrine, Green and forward Tyler Kazmierkoski are the three seniors for the ‘Cats.

And while Green and Sirrine help in the center, the leading returning scorer, Kazmierkoski, is an important asset at the forward position.

“He (Kazmierkoski) is a very intelligent person and a very intelligent player,” Ellis said. “He can score from anywhere on the court, and he is a real good defender and understands our system. He has the ability to be a vocal leader this year as well.”

New and improved

The rest of the players for the 2008-2009 campaign enter the new year with a new look, having four players coming off of redshirt seasons and six players wearing the green and gold for the first time.

Another player Ellis will look to lead the team is Warner, who is returning from a knee injury that resulted in a medical redshirt last season.

“A lot of people are looking for something and I feel I should step up – because naturally I feel that I should be the one to step up,” Warner said. “And I should lead by example and lead vocally, and just do everything that I can to help this team.”

Ellis said Warner is one of the best guards in the conference, but because of his injury, everyone has forgotten about him.

At the starting point guard position is Raymont McElroy, who is coming off a redshirt season as well, as he sat his first year with the ‘Cats.

Ellis said McElroy’s play against Michigan State in the preseason, was a highlight of the 118-57 loss, and that he made good decisions against MSU’s defenders, which will be the best defense the Wildcats sees all year.

“His (McElroy’s) point guard skill, and savvy and knack to play the game, is something special,” Ellis said. “And we’re really lucky to have him.”

Another weapon the ‘Cats will look to utilize from the guard position is the shooting skill of newly-transferred Marc Renelique, who comes to NMU from Division I Chicago State.

Ellis said Renelique has one of the best three-point shots he has had in the program, and the Wildcats will look to him for scoring.

Renelique said he would not be surprised if he is taking the shot during high-pressure situations.

“That is what I was born to do,” Renelique said. “I have been doing that stuff for a long time and I’ve always been a go-to guy.”

Renelique, Warner, McElroy, and Eric Hawley from Ontonagon Mich. will fill the backcourt for the ‘Cats.

Ellis said his backcourt group is one of the best he has coached in years.

“Those four guys are just exceptional players and we’ve got a lot of size, too,” Ellis said. “So I think we are in pretty good shape.”

Two new faces to help with the frontcourt are Jared Benson, a redshirt from Carney Mich., and Marc D’Agostino, who transferred from Division I Delaware State.

Ellis said D’Agostino brings size to the inside game with his 6-foot 7-inch frame, but he can also be a threat at the three-point line.

“He (D’Agostino) is a very diverse player on both ends – so he fits in our system great. And we will give him an opportunity to shot from the perimeter, and he can finish down by the basket,” Ellis said.

Benson is another larger part to the new-look Wildcat team, at 6 feet 10 inches tall and 250 pounds.

“He (Benson) is just getting better by the minute,” Ellis said. “His savvy and knowledge to play in the post is exceptional. He is big and he’s smart inside. And that is not an easy combination to get that.”

The road ahead

Ellis said if all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the NMU basketball team has a good chance to be successful this season.

“We are deep, talented and we have every position covered. So when we step on the court, every night we are going to look to win, and we will get them prepared to do that,” he said.

The GLIAC media poll released earlier this month predicted a low seeding, as the ‘Cats were selected to finish last in the North Division. But no one could be happier with the ranking than coach Ellis.

“We are the luckiest team of all. We can put that on the bulletin board and let that be a factor,” Ellis said. “There is not a person in this program that thinks we’re not near the top – if not the top – so that’s irrelevant how they voted.”

Now that the season is underway, the next stop for the ‘Cats is Saturday at 1.p.m. against Alma University at the Berry Events Center.

According to Kazmierkoski, the ‘Cats will go into this game with the same high expectations and hopes they’ve been approaching the season with.

“I have high hopes, but I think, being a senior, you always come in with high hopes,” he said. “But I’ve never played on a more talented team all around than what we’ve got with these talented guys. For us, we really set our sights on the national tournament and I don’t think we’re going to stop until we get there.”