By: Griffin Nelson, email@example.com
Head Coach Chad Walthall leans against the padded siding of Nemzek Fieldhouse’s north hoop as MSUM boys’ basketball runs a full-court scrimmage, preparing for a season of redemption.
Amongst the dribble of the ball, the squeak of sneakers and the steady, indecipherable bellows of the assistant coaches, Walthall carries a calm and centered presence, staring intently at the pandemonium opposite. His practice attire, a white long sleeve and baggy red sweatpants, matches his placid demeanor. Walthall extends only the occasional soft-spoken note of wisdom when players advance onto his half of the court. He waits to offer his full diet of observation at midcourt, before the team breaks into practice-ending free throws.
Walthall sees value in entrusting the loud, moment-to-moment intricacies of player development in practices to his assistants. He believes it gives his staff warranted responsibility, while allowing himself to concentrate on the Dragons’ evolution in the big picture.
And while that picture is still largely coming into focus, the improvements and adjustments made this offseason have Walthall optimistic that prosperity is primed to return to Alex Nemzek Fieldhouse.
Walthall enters his ninth season with MSUM basketball off his least successful season at the helm. The Dragons finished 7-22 last year, second-to-last in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference north division. It was Walthall’s first losing season at MSUM and marked the first time the Dragons finished below 20 wins in a season since 2012-2013.
“We got away from what made us successful in years past,” junior guard Johnny Beeninga said of the disappointing season. “We need to work on being more consistent in practice and focus on the day-to-day improvement of the team.”
Despite last season’s slump, Coach Walthall has made no significant changes to how he approaches his team.
“It was just our turn to look up at some other teams,” the Minnesota-native Coach Walthall said of the drop in success. “We had to sit some guys down, make some decisions that were best for the long-term success of the program. Hopefully we can make another run.”
Last year, Walthall and his staff decided to redshirt the four incoming freshmen, Siman Siem, Jesse Bergh, Bryce Irsfeld and Gavin Baumgartner, before the season began. While he maintains all four could’ve contributed as true freshmen, Walthall believes the buffer a redshirt season permits looms large in the transition to the collegiate-level sports.
“It’s a completely different level of play,” Walthall said. “A completely different environment for a student athlete.”
Walthall says that all four redshirt freshmen are jockeying for both starting roles and prominent minutes this season.
There are plenty of quality minutes to fill. Last year spelled the end of standout guard Tanner Kretchmann’s illustrious Dragons career. Kretchmann led the Dragons in points (16.5 PPG), assists (3.3 PPG), and minutes played (38.2 MPG) last year, and was one of just two to start all 29 games, per msumdragons.com.
Kretchmann is the most recent in a long line of productive MSUM point guards, including the likes of Jordan Riewer, Anthony Tucker, DJ Hamilton, and Jake Driscoll. Coach Walthall expects two guards, Irsfeld and Beeninga, to man the point for the Dragons.
While the loss of Kretchmann leaves a formidable hole, the Dragons return three starters from last year in Beeninga, Travaun Coad, and Addison Park. All three posted double-digit scoring averages, including a 14.8 PPG mark by Beeninga, who Coach Walthall believes has taken major steps forward in his all-around development offensively this offseason.
“He’s a tremendous individual,” Walthall said of Beeninga’s character. “That’s the number one thing we look for. Johnny [Beeninga] has really become more comfortable in a leader.”
Beeninga said he is ready to take on a more prominent leadership role as an upperclassman and leading returning scorer, a job passed down by former Dragons.
“When I was a freshman the upperclassmen really helped me out,” Beeninga said. “I want to show guys how we run things around here.”
Defensively, MSUM struggled tremendously last year, giving up an NSIC-high 82.5 points per game on average. In response, Walthall has implemented a more aggressive man-to-man approach this offseason, looking to utilize the quickness and length of this year’s squad.
“You really have to adjust to your personnel,” Walthall said. “We want to be more aggressive on the ball and a pass away. We need our guys to be confident they can make a good defensive play.”
Forcing turnovers was a major weakness for last year’s last-ranked defense. The Dragons induced a conference-low 7.7 turnovers per contest, according to northernsun.org. While Walthall wants to stray away from a full-on track meet on the court, he expects his players to take calculated risks in order to limit the opponents’ points per possession.
“I’m really excited,” Walthall said of the year’s prospects. “We have a lot of guys that are invested into what we’re doing, and I’m to see where this team can go.”
The Dragons tip off their season at home with an exhibition Friday, Nov. 2 against the University of Jamestown at Nemzek.