New Challenges, New Conference, Same Warrior Mentality for Men’s Basketball

New Challenges, New Conference, Same Warrior Mentality for Men’s Basketball

11/3/2020 | Alisha Alexander | Sports Information Director | LEWISTON, Idaho

LEWISTON, Idaho – Like many teams around the country, the Lewis-Clark State Men’s Basketball team was left with unfinished business after the early close to the 2019-20 season. The Warriors were nationals bound after winning the final Frontier Conference Championship and cutting down nets in Lewiston, and earned the No. 6 overall seed. The tournament was not to be, however, due to the global pandemic. The Warriors, coming into the season ranked No. 5 nationally, will face new challenges under third-year head coach and reigning NABC NAIA DI Coach of the Year Austin Johnson.

Many things are different about the upcoming season with changes brought on by the ongoing pandemic, but little has changed in the minds of the Warriors.

“We are working just as hard at practice and at weights,” Johnson said. “Nothing has changed with how together they are. We have to have that if we are going to have a season, regardless if it’s a pandemic or not. The returners from last year have picked up where they left off. The energy, competitiveness and togetherness have all carried over.”

LC State will open its first season as members of the Cascade Conference with an exhibition against Yellowstone Christian on Nov. 6 at home. They will take on former conference opponents Montana Tech and Montana Western in the Taco Bell Shootout in Caldwell before opening CCC play at home on Dec. 4 and 5. Northwest University and The Evergreen State College will take on the Warriors in Lewiston in the first set of conference matchups this season.

“I coached in that league for two years when I was at Corban and it’s a great league, great coaches, great rivalries,” Johnson recalled. “The Frontier was a really challenging conference in a lot of different ways, and I am excited to have a new challenge, and it’s great for our guys to be able to play in front of their families more.”

The Warriors are no strangers to the Cascade Conference, having played CCC teams often over the years. Last season LC State faced six different Cascade teams with five being played on the road. The Warriors won all seven games played against CCC competition.

“Last year we situated our schedule so that we played at NCU (Bushnell), Walla Walla, Evergreen State and at C of I,” Johnson said. “We played Corban at C of I in a tournament so we ended up playing almost half of the conference at road venues. The year before that we played Warner Pacific, so that was one thing that was important last year was scheduling as many road Cascade games as we could.

“I think our guys have a pretty good feel. They know that there are good teams, good players, there are a lot of different styles,” Johnson explained. “Instead of game planning for six teams in the Frontier, we are planning for 11 in the Cascade.”

A rivalry will be brought to light between the only two NAIA programs in Idaho. LC State and College of Idaho both received first-place votes in the conference preseason poll and both are ranked in the nation’s top 10 to start the season. The Yotes went undefeated in CCC play last season to bring home the conference title and were ranked No. 1 in NAIA DII when the season was canceled. They lost just three games last season, with one of the losses coming against LC State (76-56). C of I returns two starters and 11 players overall from the 2019-20 roster.

Six seniors will return to finish what was started last season including Third-Team All-American Damek Mitchell and All-America Honorable Mention Trystan Bradley. The four-year seniors, along with Second-Team All-Frontier Conference selection Travis Yenor and the reigning Frontier Conference Sixth Man of the Year, Jake Albright, and fellow seniors Hodges Bailey and Khalil Stevenson will lead the charge.

Mitchell is on pace to join multiple top-10 lists in the record book, if not set a new record altogether. Last season the Frontier Conference Co-Defender of the Year broke his own record in single-season assists (216), and set the mark in the career count (484). He joined the 1,000-point club at 1,034, and is just 41 points out of the top 10. He is fourth all-time in 3-pointers made (145) with the top spot of 174 within each. Bradley is 65 field goals away from the top 10, and 26 blocks away from the record in which he currently sits third (89).

“Damek has been more vocal this year, which is what you want from a senior – especially a senior that has his resume,” Johnson said. “He comes back better in different ways and this year I think its his overall competitiveness and leadership. He still shoots the ball well, makes great plays and makes the guys around him better. I think those intangibles are better this year.

“I think Trystan was the best true center in our league last year, and he shot over 40 percent from 3,” Johnson said. “He’s gotten tougher every year. Last year he developed a lot as a rebounder, as a post defender, and as more of a physical consistent presence.”

Johnson expects to see a lot out of second-year players Yenor, Albright, Stevenson and Bailey. Yenor tied with Mitchell for the team-lead in scoring last season (13.1 points per game), while Albright led the defensive efforts with 6.6 rebounds per game. He was second on the team in assists with 78. Stevenson is one of the most versatile players on the team with the ability to play almost every position on the court. The Warriors will turn to him to fill gaps throughout the season. Bailey was the only Warrior besides Bradley to start all 32 games for LC State.

“Travis is shooting the ball at a really high clip like he was last year,” Johnson explained. “He is even better with the basketball and making the right decisions and playing super confidently. I think he could even have a better year than last year.

“Khalil was huge for us last year because he is so versatile,” Johnson said. “He is a great role guy and I think he can be better and has the tools to be an all-league level player. He has a unique game. We need him to have a really big senior year.

“Hodges, so far, has been the most improved guy on our team since last season,” Johnson said. “He is more efficient and has a great understanding of how he can impact the game for our team. His confidence and consistency will be big for us this year.”

“Jake was second on the team in assists last year and I think that says a lot about him and his IQ and his teammates,” Johnson said. “He had an unbelievable year and brings an edge that no one else on our team has. He is an unbelievable teammate.”

Between Albright and Bradley, the LC Valley community has a lot to be proud of.

“I wish every year we could go get a Jake Albright from Clarkston and a Trystan Bradley from Lewiston,” Johnson joked. “My job would be 10 times easier.”

Aiding the six returners will be six new faces to the LC State lineup. Brock Henry, Oreon Courtney and Brennen Newsom will suit up for their freshman season after redshirting last year, while Silas Bennion will take the court as a true freshman. The Warriors added collegiate experience in Umpqua CC’s Grant Ellison and Western Wyoming CC’s Nathan Fromm.

“Brock and Oreon both bring some length and some athleticism on the wing that we didn’t necessarily have last year,” Johnson explained. “Silas has a chance to be a good piece as a freshman. He plays really well with the older guys and will be able to give Damek ligament rest and take the load off of him. They can also play together and play really well together at practice.”

The season kicks off with an exhibition against Yellowstone Christian on Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Activity Center. The Warriors will then turn their attention to their non-conference games in Caldwell, Idaho.

The Warriors will be playing in an empty Activity Center at least through the fall, but every home game will be streamed online at KOZE will carry the games online and on the radio. Every home game will also be streamed at Zany’s and Tomato Bros. 

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