The Mercyhurst men’s basketball team has opened to a strong start in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) play, defeating five members of the PSAC East.
A 5-1 record in conference has been aided by two weekends of sweeps, which came at the expense of Millersville, West Chester, Kutztown and East Stroudsburg.
Kutztown and East Stroudsburg were No. 1 and No. 2 in the PSAC East preseason poll.
The Lakers split this past weekend, winning against Bloomsburg and losing to Mansfield by a last second buzzer-beating half court shot.
After losing key seniors Shelton Jackson and Heiden Ratner to graduation, many feared this year would be a year to rebuild.
However, underclassmen and transfer players have quickly filled the vacated roles.
Six new members wear the blue and green this year. Transfers Paul Bilbo from Hofstra University and Matt Lee from Bryant University and freshmen Christian Heine, Terrence Ingram, Callon Dailey and Arnis Libazs provide much depth to the 2012 Lakers.
A recent seventh member has just joined the squad, Steve Coleman from Ohio University. Coleman transferred after the beginning of the year and is now eligible to compete in contests.
“Many different players have stepped up to fill big roles,” Head Coach Gary Manchel said. “(Sophomore) Andy Rickard has come a long way from last year. He has been playing very consistent for us.”
Consistency and leadership have been two main components to the success thus far. Seniors Bill Weaver and Jamal Turner have been the two main voices behind the squad.
“Senior leadership has been great. Both Bill and Jamal have been tremendous, and now with Luis back, it brings a whole different energy on the floor,” Manchel said.
During a PSAC West contest last year, Luis Leao suffered a torn ACL and has been on the road to recovery for the past nine months.
“After surgery the first three months were really tough, I couldn’t do much. The next two months, I began to finally get stronger, since then it’s been a lot of individual stuff,” Leao said. “I’ve been constantly doing physical therapy workouts. I haven’t taken many days off, and I’ve been focused on getting stronger.”
The comeback of Leao sparked the team’s victory over Kutztown. Leao scored 23 points in only 24 minutes. He also pulled down five rebounds.
Manchel believes that the return of Leao speaks volumes of how great they can be.
“He’s the best player in the league. He needs to be on the floor for us to win,” Manchel said.
Despite the turnover in rosters, Leao feels that his role is about the same as last year.
“I need to connect the dots with everyone, always have energy and play hard on defense all the time.” Leao said.
He also believes the mixture of players has made the offense flow much smoother.
“Our offense is much more together, scoring comes from everyone, I don’t have as much pressure to score,” Leao said.
The Lakers have yet to put together a complete game of offense and defense for a full 40 minutes.
“We’re not where we need to be on defense yet, but were getting there,” says Manchel. “We’re having a hard time handling the ball. I’m just waiting for everything to click for a full 40 minutes.”
Rickard has been leading the team in points with 17.3 points per game. Lee is also off to a great start with an average of 16.8 points per game. Both Leao and senior Bill Weaver lead the team in rebounds with five per game.
“PSAC West play is going to be the most challenging,” says Manchel. “Any team can beat any team on any night.”
The Lakers return to action Dec. 17 and 18, for the Mercyhurst Invitational. Saturday’s game is set for 4 p.m. and Sunday’s is at 3 p.m.