by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels’ season-ending team banquet is always a bittersweet affair, combining as it does a farewell to departing players with a celebration of the recently-completed season.
That combination of joy and sadness was never more apparent than at last night’s banquet at the Moraga Country Club, where three players instrumental in a record-breaking string of 88 victories over the last three years said their final good-byes. Emmett Naar, Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson were more somber and reflective than usual, with Landale having to halt his remarks repeatedly to fight off tears.
Consistent among the remarks of the three departing seniors — along with graduate transfer Cullen Neal — was praise for the Gael coaching staff and unabashed affection for their teammates. Naar, the sometimes puckish assist wizard, who broke Matthew Dellavedova’s career and single-season assist records this year, set the tone with a heartfelt paean to the coaching staff.
He thanked Coach Randy Bennett for “the five best years of my life,” added praise for top assistant Marty Clarke and then cited lesser-known assistants Marcus Schroeder and Danny Yoshikawa for their contributions to team success.
Schroeder, he said, inspired him with the energy he brought to day-to-day practices, and Yoshikawa “has been a complete game-changer for me.” It dawned on me how little the average fan knows about the behind-the-scenes roles the assistant coaches play, but the three departing seniors weren’t going to leave them unsung last night.
Hermanson noted Bennett’s no-nonsense appraisal that Calvin’s game was not Gael-worthy when he arrived in Moraga after being named Oregon High School Player of the Year for two consecutive years.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat anything — he’s always straight-up with you,” was Hermanson’s appraisal, and it was given with affection and the realization that Bennett’s gruffness is exhibited for the purpose of making individuals and the team better.
If Naar and Hermanson opened the crowd’s eyes to the appreciation felt for Bennett and his assistants, Landale underscored that feeling with the most emotional speech of the evening. After praising Clarke for challenging him to the point of almost coming to blows — “I mean physically hurting each other” — Landale cited an incident from his freshman year that all Gaels fans remember. It was the tail-end of an easy victory over the Rex Walters-led San Francisco Dons, and Landale was undercut by a Don player as Landale flushed a game-ending basket.
In an ensuing melee occasioned by Walters’ berserk reaction to the Gael bench berating the player who seemed to try to injure Landale, Jock said one thing stood out in his mind: it was Clarke who vociferously and menacingly challenged Walters to stop his advance onto the Gael side of the floor.
“I knew he would always have my back,” Landale said.
Landale lost his composure when trying to express his admiration for Schroeder, and it took a swig of beer offered by an attendee — and an ensuing burp — before Landale could finish. He praised Schroeder’s overall demeanor, saying he aspired to emulate it in his life, and ended by saying, “I couldn’t have made it through four years without you.”
There was the usual good-natured ribbing among players as they repeated the tradition of past banquets — each player introducing one of his teammates. Kristers Zoriks, known to Gael fans only as a native of Latvia who red-shirted last season to recuperate from a torn ACL, showed he may have the moxie to become a force in the Gaels’ back-court.
Introducing Malik Fitts, another red-shirt who transferred to Saint Mary’s after a freshman season at South Florida, .Zoriks noted Fitts was a flashy dresser, sometimes sporting a gold chain.
“It’s not real — it’s fake,” Zoriks said.
In a similar vein, Kyle Clark, another recuperating ACL victim, thanked Tanner Krebs for filling in at Clark’s position as power forward last season.
“Rui Hashimura and Yoeli Childs would really like to thank you, too,” Clark said, referring to outstanding forwards from Gonzaga and BYU who proved hard for Krebs to guard.
What lies ahead
Emerging through the evening of emotional tributes and light player roasts was the realization of how drastically different next year’s Gaels will be. Not only will Naar, Hermanson and Landale be gone after playing in Moraga for what seemed like ages, but another key player over that period was conspicuous by his absence: Evan Fitzner.
Nothing was said of Fitzner last night, but that silence added to the impression that the 6-10 three-point ace will not return as a fifth-year senior. If so, four of five players who were in the starting lineup as the 2017-18 season began will not be back. That is one of the most significant turnovers of talent Bennett has experienced — the largest since the entire starting five of the Brad Waldow-led team of 2016 graduated.
There was no talk of who would carry the torch next season, but fans are wont to speculate anyway. There are dozens of possible scenarios, but here is one that occurs to me (without the assistance of any inside information).
Your new starting five (maybe)
Jordan Ford, who received a well-deserved award as Most Improved Player, and Krebs, who played out of position last year, will be the most experienced players returning. What if they constituted the starting back-court? Ford will have no trouble taking over from Naar at point guard, as he blossomed as a potential star on both ends of the court in the ’17-18 season.
But Krebs as a two-guard?
Krebs is a streaky but often-deadly three-point shooter, who at 6-6 is a match-up nightmare for any opposing guard. He has not shown a relish for dribbling as he switched between small and power forward over the past two seasons, but if he improved his handle over the summer would give Bennett a fearsome perimeter defender.
Elijah Thomas seems destined to be a large part of the Gael attack next year, and small forward is his best position. Fitts has drawn accolades for his performance at practice, and at 6-8 looks to be a natural power forward. Clark, who will be fully recovered from his knee injury and is dying to get back on the court, will resume his position as a valuable fill-in at either the small or power forward position.
At center, with the daunting prospect of succeeding the All-American Landale, the Gaels have three prospects: 6-10 senior Jordan Hunter, who has shown flashes of offensive competence and is a much better rim protector than Landale; 7-1 redshirt sophomore Jock Perry, who played only in garbage time last year but who has worlds of promise; and newcomer Mattias Tass from Estonia, who has Gael fans licking their lips in anticipation from watching impressive videos of his international performance.
Bennett could play it safe by starting the relatively experienced Hunter, and bring Tass and Perry along as substitutes, or he could get creative. What about playing Tass alongside Hunter in the front court, with Fitts coming off the bench to spell Tass at power forward or Thomas at small forward?
Bennett has similar options in the back court, with Zoriks stepping up after his knee troubles and newcomers Quinn Clinton from New Zealand and Alex Mudronja from Australia arriving as promising freshmen. Possibilities abound.
The departing seniors set an impressive standard during their tenure — 109 wins counting the off-year of 2016 with “only” 21 wins — and the new edition of Gael basketball will be hard-pressed to match their success. It is not realistic to expect 29-30 wins from next year’s team, but Bennett does not sell them short either.
He confirmed non-conference neutral court games against LSU (Las Vegas) and New Mexico (Los Angeles) last night, and has road games against New Mexico State and Western Kentucky on the books as well, along with Cal in Moraga. That is an aggressive schedule, an answer to an unyielding NCAA selection committee that managed to keep the Gaels out of the NCAA Tournament for two of the last three years.
If the Gaels fail to participate in March Madness in 2019 it won’t be because of scheduling lapses.
A sight Gaels fans have grown used to over the last four years — Randy Bennett conferring with Emmett Naar on the sidelines — will not be repeated as the Gaels enter a new era. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.