St. Mary’s Looking to Build off Best ACAC Finish, Continue Upward Trajectory in 2020-21

Hammer, Kevin
Third year guard Kevin Hammer and the St. Mary’s University Lightning will be looking to continue their climb in the ACAC standings, having improved their placing in each of the last four seasons. (Source: St. Mary’s University Lightning) (Header: St. Mary’s University Lightning)

CALGARY, Alta. — If you’re reading this, it’s not too late.

While we’re still looking back on an incredible 2019-20 season, one that had no shortage of excitement across both U Sports and the CCAA, it’s also the perfect time to look ahead.

The 2020-21 season is going to be one for the history books. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the season has been pushed back until at least January 2021 for most leagues, with Quebec as the exception. The RSEQ has yet to make a decision on whether or not to delay sports until the Winter semester.

To get fans across the country ready for the new season, we’ve taken on a challenge that hasn’t been done before. In the coming weeks, we will preview every team from coast to coast ahead of the 2020-21 season.

That’s 112 different programs, if you’re keeping a tally at home.

We are attempting to preview each and every team from coast to coast ahead of the new season. Challenges have emerged in each of the last two seasons as we’ve attempted this feat before, but we’re going to give it another run.

As they say, third time’s the charm. Right?

For institutions that have both men’s and women’s basketball, a separate preview piece will be done for each team.

Rosters will be dissected and a look back at the year that was will help us determine what the team looks like this time around as every team begins with a blank slate in the standings.

Without further adieu, here is today’s preview on the St. Mary’s University Lightning Men’s Basketball program.

2019-20 in Review

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

That same statement can be applied to basketball programs. A championship contending team isn’t built overnight. There are some growing pains, plenty of close games that don’t go your way, but stay the course and things will eventually sort themselves out if you put in the work.

For the St. Mary’s Lightning Men’s Basketball program, they have been slowly building towards their goal of contending for an ACAC Championship. This past season, they knocked on the door of the post-season.

Still, the door remained locked for another season.

Prior to the 2019-20 season, the Lightning had improved their record and finish in the ACAC South Division standings in each of the previous three seasons. Here’s a look at their records and finishes over the last three years:

2016-17: 3-18 (8th Place; 24 points out of playoffs)
2017-18: 4-17 (7th Place; 18 points out of playoffs)
2018-19: 6-15 (T-6th Place; 12 points out of playoffs)

In 2019-20, they continued their upwards trajectory, finishing the year with a 10-11 record. They were tied with the Red Deer College Kings for 4th in the South Division, but the Kings secured the fourth and final playoff position by way of tiebreaker.

Despite St. Mary’s picking up a 92-81 win over the Kings in the regular season finale, Red Deer won the season series, 2-1. Both losses for the Lightning came by a combined three points.

“I am proud of the guys and the progress we have made and last year was a great example of that,” said Lightning Head Coach Nathan Ruff. “We had the best record and finish of any St. Mary’s men’s program since joining the ACAC.”

“It’s hard to look back at last season and not feel like we left to many games on the table.”

Hindsight is always 20/20, and it often leads to more questions than answers. For the Lightning, nine of their losses were decided by single-digits, including a pair of single-digit losses. They dropped a 79-78 decision to the SAIT Trojans back on January 17th, and then they suffered a 78-77 loss to Red Deer on February 28th.

Had either one of those single-point losses gone their way, the Lightning would have been in the playoffs.

Still, like Ruff mentioned, their record (10-11) and placement in the standings (tied-4th) were the best-ever marks for the Men’s Program at St. Mary’s University since they joined the ACAC. The close losses also helped put things into perspective for Ruff, his staff, and the players.

“One of the biggest takeaways is that every single possession counts,” continued Ruff. “We will be more focused this year and can now say we have been in those situations and won’t let them happen again.”

“Being competitive isn’t good enough anymore for this program. Our focus will be to convert every possession and to win.”

With each passing year, the Lightning have steadily improved, and they’re hoping that the 2020-21 season will be no different. After having coming within a game of the playoffs last season, they have their sights set squarely on a top-three spot in the South Division to guarantee themselves a spot at the ACAC Championship, hosted by the Ambrose Lions.

As hosts, the Lions are guaranteed a spot in the field, even if they finish outside of the top four in the South Division standings. They would bump the fourth-place team, meaning the Lightning can guarantee themselves a spot in the tournament with a top-three finish.

St. Mary’s is expected to return the bulk of last year’s roster, but will have to do without their top rebounder and second-leading scorer, both of whom have moved onto the next chapter of their respective careers.

Who’s Gone?

With the ever-changing situation surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic, and its effect on school enrollment for the fall semester and beyond, speculating what the 2020-21 roster could look like for the Lightning is about the best we can do at this point.

With that being said, it has been confirmed that St. Mary’s will be without the services of three players from last season, as Johnpaul Okodua (Edo, Nigeria), Wil Konybai (Calgary, Alta.), and Ryan Tod (Calgary, Alta.) have all moved onto the next chapter of their respective careers, basketball or otherwise.

Okodua, Johnpaul
(Source: MacEwan Griffins)

The 6’9’’ Okodua will remain in the province of Alberta, but will don another jersey for the 2020-21 season. It was announced back on April 29th that Okodua has committed to Head Coach Mike Connolly and the MacEwan Griffins in the Canada West for next season.

During the 2019-20 season, Okodua proved to be one of the top post players in the country. He led the ACAC with an average of 1.8 blocked shots per game, and he ranked 2nd in the league with 12.2 rebounds per game. Okodua also ranked 2nd with a total of 257 rebounds. In addition to his rebounding totals, Okodua averaged 11.2 points per game on 49.8% shooting from the field.

On the glass, he was about as steady as they come, recording six or more rebounds in 20 of 21 regular season games. Add in the fact that he had double-digit points in 16 games, the Griffins are getting themselves a talented post presence that will look to help MacEwan climb from the basement in the Canada West.

In Konybai, the Lightning lose one of the more consistent three-point shooters in the conference. The Calgary native finished the year shooting 44.4% from long range, good enough for the 8th-best mark in the ACAC. Konybai was the team’s second-highest scorer, averaging 14.0 points to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

Konybai played his better basketball during the first half of the year. He recorded 10 games with double-digit points, nine of which came in the first half of the year. Konybai kicked off the year with a 30-point outing against SAIT in their regular season opener.

Rounding out the group of departures is guard Ryan Tod. In 21 games off the bench, Tod averaged 3.3 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 35.4% from the field.

From there, Ruff expects to have the rest of last year’s active roster back and ready to build off last year’s finish. There are obvious holes in the roster to be filled, both by returnees and new recruits alike, but the Lightning are confident with the group they have for the 2020-21 season.

Who’s Back?

Like most schools and programs all across Canada, St. Mary’s University is awaiting the start of the school year to officially confirm who will be back and who may be taking a year off given the remote learning offering as opposed to in-person classes.

With that said, the group that’s expected to be back for the Lightning will be out to continue the program’s yearly rise in the ACAC standings, and will be looking to send off their seniors on a high note, to boot.

Leading the way in terms of returnees is veteran forward Jordan Britton (Drumheller, Alta.). When his career comes to a close, he will go down as one of the best players to ever wear a St. Mary’s University Lightning jersey. This past season, Britton became the first Lightning player to top the 1,000-point mark, and he currently sits at 1,077 points for his career.

He’s also on the verge of breaking the ACAC all-time record for three-pointers, as he comes into the 2020-21 season just 33 makes shy of the record. Britton is a career 39% shooter (183-of-469) as a member of the Lightning.

This past season saw Britton rank 4th on the team in scoring, averaging 12.5 points to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest. He shot 40.2% from the field and 41.2% from three-point range. Having hit more than 33 three-point jumpers in each year of his career thus far, the question is more of a when will it happen, as opposed to if it will happen.

Britton 1000
Jordan Britton became the first Lightning player to top the 1,000 point mark for his career. (Source: St. Mary’s University Lightning)

From a veteran to an up-and-coming star in the ACAC, the Lightning are excited to see what guard Caleb Jipp (Calgary, Alta.) will have in store for year two. Last season as a rookie, Jipp led the Lightning in scoring, averaging 15.6 points per game on 43.3% shooting from the field, 34.3% from three-point range, and 77.9% from the free throw line.

As the season moved along, Jipp got used to the pace of the collegiate game, and he started to find his rhythm on offense. He recorded double-digit points in seven of his last eight games, and he topped the 20-point mark seven times over the course of the season.

However, Jipp’s statement game came on February 15th at the expense of the Medicine Hat Rattlers. In the Lightning’s 106-84 win, Jipp went for 40 points, going 12-of-14 from the field, 6-of-7 from three-point range, and 10-of-12 from the free throw line along the way. The Lightning are hoping that’s a sign of things to come for the Calgary native as his career continues to unfold.

As the 2019-20 season wore on, forward Ryan Morck (Airdrie, Alta.) got better and better. Coming off a knee injury, it took Morck some time to get things rolling. Over his first four games, he scored a combined 16 points. When the year was said and done, he had a total of 13 games in double-figures.

For the year, Morck averaged 12.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game. He is one of three double-digit scorers back in the mix for the Lightning heading into the 2020-21 season, and Morck will be looking to build off last year’s performance now that he’s healthy once more.

From there, the Lightning also bring back a strong supporting cast that will look to take on expanded roles with the players who have moved on from the program and help the program get into the post-season.

Center Alex Cliché (Drumheller, Alta.) could see an increase in minutes with the departure of Okodua to MacEwan. Last season, the 6’6” forward averaged 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in 19 appearances off the bench. Cliché and Morck (6’10”) give the Lightning a veteran front court tandem off the hop, and we haven’t factored in the recruits yet, either.

Guards Kevin Hammer (Calgary, Alta.), Nic Casagrande (Calgary, Alta.), Coal Clark (Okotoks, Alta.), and Joshua Pahl (Okotoks, Alta.) add depth to the front court rotation, and could be in line for more minutes as the depth chart shifts with the losses of both Konybai and Tod.

Equipped with their share of veterans and key returnees from last year’s team, one can begin to see why Ruff and his staff are excited about this year’s team. When you factor in their 2020-21 recruiting class, one that is headlined by a former PACWEST All-Star and a guard returning to the Lightning after a two-year hiatus, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

Incoming Talent

To this point in the off-season, the Lightning have confirmed five names in their 2020-21 recruiting class. Three of the players come by way of transfer, one each from the PACWEST, Canada West, and the OCAA. One player is a true first-year student-athlete, while the fifth and final player is making his return to the lineup after a two-year hiatus.

Forward Dallas Hancox (Red Deer, Alta.) is arguably the biggest addition for Ruff and the Lightning. Hancox comes to the Lightning from the Camosun Chargers, where he was a PACWEST All-Star. Most recently, Hancox played 15 games during the 2018-19 season, averaging 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game while shooting 56.5% from the field.

Right away, Hancox will give St. Mary’s a veteran post presence, adding more talent and depth to the mix.

Guard Sean Petrone (Calgary, Alta.) transfers to St. Mary’s from the Mount Royal Cougars. In 2018-19, he saw the floor in a pair of games in November, recording three points against MacEwan in the process.

Fellow guard Mark Lue-Hue (Mississauga, Ont.) committed to the Lightning after transferring from the St. Lawrence Vikings (now the St. Lawrence Surge) in the OCAA. Back in 2018-19, Lue-Hue averaged 6.6 points per game on 54.5% shooting across five regular season appearances.

Wing Riley Follensbee (Moose Jaw, Sask.) comes to the Lightning from Athol Murray College. With his size and ability to play multiple positions, he will give the St. Mary’s lineup an added level of versatility.

Rounding out the group of recruits for Ruff and staff is guard Mobin Ali (Calgary, Alta.). Ali is no stranger to the Lightning program, as he played his first season with the team back in 2017-18. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while appearing in all 21 regular season games.

Ali took the last two years off to focus on his academics, but deems now is the right time to return to the floor.

“I think one of the most exciting things about this group is the experience that they bring and how well each of them will supplement our existing team and style of play,” added Ruff.

Most of the veteran recruits that are coming in had been around the team for parts of last year, so the chemistry level is already there within the team. Having been worked into practices, the team has a better sense of how everyone works together, and that will only help them as workouts begin to resume in anticipation of a 2020-21 season.

“I am confident to say this is the best overall and deep team St. Mary’s has ever had and I am excited to work with them this season and to achieve our goals together,” concluded Ruff. “I think it will be an exciting 2020-21 season, and we have realistic goals and drive to fulfill them.

“Although our season of play may be different, I can assure you this group of athletes are hungry and have been working extremely hard to make sure we achieve our goals.”

With eight returnees and a talented five-man recruiting class, the Lightning have their sights set on a spot in the playoffs in 2020-21. Like Ruff said, being competitive isn’t enough any longer. Having knocked on the door last year and it being shut in their faces on the final weekend, the Lightning will be looking to finally get over the proverbial hump and crack the post-season.

Only time will tell if Lightning will strike the post-season picture, or if the storm will pass over the ACAC Championships yet again.

Be sure to bookmark our 2020-21 Season Previews page to keep up with the previews as they are released online.

– T. Bennett

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