A Veteran Heavy Ambrose Lions Roster Will Look to Continue Their Rise in ACAC South Division

Daniel, Brayden
Veteran forward Brayden Daniel is one of seven upperclassmen expected back for the Ambrose Lions in 2020-21 as they get set to host the 2021 ACAC Men’s Basketball Championship. (Source: Ambrose University) (Header: Ambrose University)

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 Ambrose Lions Men’s Basketball program.

2019-20 in Review

The 2019-20 season was yet another in the steady rise of the Ambrose Lions in the ACAC South Division standings.

Just four years ago, during the 2016-17 season, the Lions posted a record of 7-14, finishing tied for 5th in the division standings. They posted 10 wins the next season, but missed the playoffs after finishing sixth. In 2018-19, they made the playoffs after posting a 12-9 record, but went 0-2 at the ACAC Championship and didn’t play on the third day.

Still, a five-win improvement over three seasons got the Lions back into the playoff conversation, and they looked to carry that momentum into the 2019-20 season.

Thanks in large part to an 8-4 record in the second half of the season, the Lions once again improved on their win total from the previous year. Ambrose finished third in the ACAC South Division with a record of 13-8, and were off to the ACAC Championships for the second season in a row.

After an early exit the previous season, the Lions were set to stay for the full weekend this time around. As the 3rd seed from the South Division, they had an uphill climb to get to the Championship Game. In their opener, Ambrose squared off with the Augustana Vikings, who were the host program along with the 2nd seed from the North Division.

Not intimidated by the Vikings’ home court advantage, the Lions raced out to a 37-21 lead after the first quarter, letting the air out of the gym in the process. While Augustana continued to fight down the stretch, the Lions came away with the 95-85 win to advance to the Semifinals.

In the Semifinals, the Lions squared off with the NAIT Ooks, the 4th seed from the North Division after they had knocked off the Lethbridge Kodiaks, the top seed from the South Division. With a spot in the Championship Game on the line, both teams left it all on the floor. The game was tied at 83-all after three quarters, but Ambrose squeaked past the Ooks in the fourth for the five-point win, 103-98.

Awaiting the Lions in the Finals was none other than the SAIT Trojans, the three-time defending ACAC Champions. Ambrose seemed to have SAIT’s number in the regular season, winning the season series 2-1, and their lone loss came by a single point.

Despite their regular season success, the Lions were no match for the battle-tested Trojans. SAIT led 54-32 at the half, and rolled to the 91-69 victory for their fourth-consecutive ACAC Gold Medal, forcing the Lions to settle for the Silver Medal in the process.

“I think our chemistry as a team was a major reason for our success,” said Ambrose Head Coach Neil Nystrom when looking back on the year. “The athletes worked really hard and bought into our team systems, and saw the fruit that of second semester when we were able to string some wins together.”

Even though they came up short in the Championship Game, it was another year of improvement for the program. For the players, they saw that they can hang with the best that the league has to offer, and that bodes well for their confidence moving forwards.

“I think the biggest takeaway from the season is that we have put together the right group of guys in our locker room that are able to compete and be successful against any competition we may face in the league,” said Team Captain and fourth-year forward Brayden Daniel (Calgary, Alta.). “As the season went on, and our confidence grew, we saw our potential and what we could achieve if we played the right way.”

“We played in and won some big games during the year which grew our confidence and we brought that confidence into the playoffs where it seemed that everything clicked at the right time.”

On the heels of their run in 2019-20, the Lions were named the hosts for the 2020-21 ACAC Men’s Basketball Championship, guaranteeing themselves a third-straight trip to the tournament. Equipped with a talented roster that’s chalked full of veterans that will be looking to close their careers on a high, the Lions have an opportunity to do something special on their home floor.

They’re keeping things in perspective, not looking too far ahead, but they’re using the opportunity as motivation to fuel the fire ahead of what will surely be an unique season in 2020-21.

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 Lions is about the best we can do at this point.

At this point, we know that the Lions will be without one name from last year’s rotation, as point guard Matt Francisco (Calgary, Alta.) graduated at year’s end. Francisco was the lone fifth-year player on the Ambrose roster last season.

Francisco, Matt
(Source: Ambrose University)

The Calgary native had himself a strong season to close out his collegiate career. Francisco led the Lions with an average of 4.4 assists per game to go along with 5.5 points and 2.2 rebounds over his 21 regular season appearances. He recorded at least five assists on nine separate occasions.

On top of that, Francisco ranked third in the ACAC in terms of three-point shooting percentage, hitting on 50.0% (21-of-42) of his attempts from long range for the season.

Who’s Back?

Like most schools and programs all across Canada, Ambrose 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.

Other scenarios are at play for the Lions, along with other schools who have International players on their roster. Border closures and restrictions may limit when players are able to return to Canada to continue their schooling and training, so that is a situation that we’ll be keeping an eye on as we get closer to the 2020-21 season.

With that in mind, the Lions are expected to return the bulk of their core from last year’s team, giving themselves a talented nucleus to build around as they gear up to host the 2021 ACAC Men’s Basketball Championship.

Headlining the list of returnees is a back court tandem that is one of the more underrated pairs in the CCAA, let alone the ACAC. Linden Jackson (Gary, Ind.) and Isaac Gray (Calgary, Alta.) give the Lions a formidable one-two punch on the offensive end, and both are a threat to go off on any given night.

Last season, Jackson led the Lions with an average of 16.1 points per contest over 20 regular season appearances, shooting 39.3% from the field, 32.3% from three-point range, and 79.3% from the free throw line along the way. He ranked 16th in the ACAC in scoring, 11th among those in the South Division.

Jackson also added 3.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.

Over the course of the year, the fourth-year guard put together 18 games with double-digit points, five of which that saw him go for at least 20 points. He was effective from the field, shooting 40% or better on 14 occasions.

As he closes his career, Jackson will look to help the Lions win an ACAC Championship on their home floor. That’s assuming he can return to Calgary given the current border situation between Canada and the United States.

Gray, Isaac
Isaac Gray (#10) is knocking on the door of 1,000 career points for his collegiate career, a milestone he should have no problem hitting if the 2020-21 season takes place. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

Not to be outdone, Gray had himself a strong third season with the Lions in 2019-20. The Calgary native averaged 15.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game over 21 regular season appearances, shooting 41.2% from the floor and 36.6% from beyond the arc along the way.

While his points per game average took a slight dip from the 2018-19 season (18.9 ppg), Gray’s rebounding and assist averages were both career-high marks in 2019-20. Despite the slight drop off in terms of scoring, Gray still recorded six games with at least 20 points ,and he ended the season with 818 points for his career.

Gray is knocking on the door of the 1,000-point plateau, and it’s a milestone that he should have no trouble passing this season, assuming the 2020-21 season does kick off in January 2021.

Rounding out a talented guard trio for the Lions is Nhial Phillip (Calgary, Alta.). Over 19 regular season games last season, Phillip ranked 14th in the ACAC with 7.6 rebounds per game and seventh in terms of field goal shooting percentage (55.7).

Phillip added 14.5 points and 1.9 assists per game while leading the team in rebounds. The hometown guard recorded a total of eight double-doubles for the season, giving the Lions a spark on both ends of the floor.

Phillip, Nhail
Nhial Phillip is one of five players who averaged double-digit points per game last season for the Lions. (Source: Ambrose University)

Up front, Isaac Amsing (Cochrane, Alta.) had himself a season to remember. Despite making just three starts and averaging 20.6 minutes per game over his 20 regular season appearances, Amsing led the ACAC in both field goal percentage (62.4%) and three-point shooting percentage (52.2%) for the season.

Amsing averaged 12.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game in addition to his fantastic shooting numbers. He closed the season by recording double-digit points in five of the last six games, a stretch that included three double-doubles. Amsing went for 29 points, on 14-of-17 shooting from the field, and 11 rebounds in the regular season finale against the Olds College Broncos.

Rounding out the group of double-digit scorers from last year’s team is forward Riley Cordwell (Sunshine Coast, Australia). The third-year forward averaged 12.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 40.9% from the field and 84.4% from the free throw line.

Cordwell put together two separate stretches of games in which he recorded double-digit points. His first five-game streak came from October 18th through to November 15th, and the second came between January 31st and February 21st.

However, Cordwell’s best game may have come on January 24th when he flirted with a triple-double in a 90-72 win over the Medicine Hat Rattlers. Cordwell finished the day with 10 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists.

The aforementioned Brayden Daniel posted 5.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 54.8% from the field over 21 regular season appearances. After suffering an Achilles injury the year prior and missing some time, Daniel admitted that it took some time to get going this year.

“This last year was a feeling out process for me getting back to to the feel of the game,” said Daniel on his injury and returning to the court. “Last year was a down year for myself.”

“Personally, I have been extra motivated this off-season to improve physically and mentally to make a big jump in my individual play, as well as becoming a better leader and captain for my team. I am way past that injury and feeling better than ever.”

Rounding out the core group of returnees is guard Sylvan Lombo (Calgary, Alta.). Over 19 games, six of which were starts, Lombo averaged 6.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game while hitting on 44.3% of his shot attempts from the field. Like the other players on the roster who are entering their fifth year of eligibility, Lombo will be looking to cap off his career with a provincial title on his home floor.

Last season, the Lions led the ACAC with 24.8 assists per game as a team and ranekd second overall in field goal percentage (46.3%). Add in the fact that Ambrose had five players average double-digit points, all of whom are expected back in 2020-21, and it’s easy to see why Nystrom is excited about the possibilities.

“The exciting part is that all seven of these athletes were rotation players and got a lot of experience last year,” said Nystrom on his returning upperclassmen. “We have a lot of versatility on our team and can run out many different lineups that can create advantages at both ends of the floor.”

Ambrose will be a veteran-heavy team this season, and experience plays a big role in collegiate basketball, especially in the post-season. However, Nystrom and the coaching staff have addressed the future of the program with their seven-man recruiting class that will help to shape the future of the program when the veterans have graduated.

Incoming Talent

With a slew of veterans set to graduate within the next two years, Nystrom and his staff went out and landed seven recruits as part of their 2020-21 recruiting class. They have added players that can help all over their roster, filling holes as they become available with players graduating in the next couple of years.

“I’m excited about the young athletes that are joining our team,” continued Nystrom. “They will bring a lot of energy and athleticism to our team, and should push for minutes this year.”

“If we can continue to develop this class, our future will definitely be in good hands.”

The Lions have added two players to the front court mix, four guards to the back court rotation, and a wing player that will add versatility to the lineup on both sides of the ball.

Up front, Ambrose has added the services of post Jace Straub (Linden, Alta.) and forward Connor Stel (Calgary, Alta.) to the mix. Straub comes to the Lions by way of ACME High School, while Stel comes from nearby St. Mary’s High School in Calgary.

On the wing, the Lions have added the services of Ethan Doering (Okotoks, Alta.) who joins the program from Foothills Composite High School.

Lastly, Ambrose has added four guards to the back court mix. Jovi Custodio (Linden, Alta.) will join Straub at Ambrose University, as the ACME High School teammates will once again don the same uniform on the court.

Pederson, Lucas
Lucas Pederson is one of three hometown recruits for the Ambrose Lions in their 2020-21 recruiting class. (Source: Ambrose Lions)

Lucas Pederson (Calgary, Alta.) and Hudson Wiebe (Calgary, Alta.) will stay in their hometown to continue their respective basketball careers. Pederson played at the Edge School, while Wiebe played at Western Canada High School.

The last recruit is a name that should be familiar to Ambrose fans already. Tom Cordwell (Sunshine Coast, Australia) comes to the Lions by way of the Combine Academy, adding a family connection to the roster in the process.

For the Lions, they have addressed several potential holes in their roster that will be caused by players graduating over the next two years. Getting a year of experience and development under the belts of the recruits will allow for them to step into expanded roles over the next two years and help the Lions continue their string of positive momentum in the ACAC South Division.

For the Lions, knowing that they have a spot secured in the 2021 ACAC Championship as the host institution could be a dangerous scenario. However, everyone seems to be on the same page.

“It is very important for us to keep our ultimate goal in mind with every game and practice we have to ensure that we don’t take anything for granted,” concluded Daniel. “From Day One, we’re working with the understanding that we have the talent to be playing for the ring at the end of the season, and that everything we do daily will be focused towards making it to that game and winning.”

Similar words were echoed by Nystrom, who also referenced how unique the 2020-21 season will be given its late start.

“We will anticipate that we can still get a regular season in second semester and host the Championships, so we are preparing for that playoff run,” added Nystrom. “There is less anxiety around making playoffs, and now we want to focus on improving every week and peaking at the end of the season.”

Having improved in terms of wins in each of the past four seasons, the Lions are hoping to continue that trend in 2020-21. Last season, they got a taste of what it takes to advance to the Gold Medal Game, and you can bet that having the chance to win a provincial title on their home floor will give this year’s team all of the extra motivation it needs.

The time is now for the Ambrose Lions.

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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