The 2008-2009 men’s basketball season promises to be a season of change for the St. Mary’s University Rattlers with 12 newcomers to the roster. One thing that head coach Jim Zeleznak plans to keep the same is the Rattlers’ history of success, especially coming off a Heartland Conference Tournament Championship and NCAA Division South Central Region berth last season.

“We had a couple of our returning players ask what our expectations were heading into this season,” Zeleznak said. “I told them that under no circumstances is this going to be a rebuilding year. Our expectations have not changed at all. It may take a little time with such a new group, but we will not accept anything less.”

Zeleznak and the Rattlers have quite a challenge in front of them to match or exceed the success of the 2007-2008 Rattlers. St. Mary’s lost four of five starters from last year’s squad, with only Lorenzo Anthony (Sr., San Antonio) back. Nick Morey (Sr., Belpre, Ohio) evolved into one of the most consistent contributors for the Rattlers over the second half of the season, while Alex Amy (Jr., Universal City) and Ronald Tata (Sr., Houston) were strong contributors off the bench and will provide veteran leadership this season.

“Both Lorenzo and Nick made valuable contributions to the team last year,” Zeleznak said. “I expect them to provide leadership with all the new faces.”

The largest single-season recruiting class for the Rattlers since they moved to Division II gives the team a lot of new players entering this season. The group is made up of eight freshmen and four junior college transfers, but Zeleznak has no doubt that all will be able to contribute immediately this season.

“From our perspective, we feel like with this recruiting class we’ve addressed our immediate needs and laid a foundation for our program for the next four years,” Zeleznak said. “The junior college players are expected to help out immediately, but we think that some of our high school players can come in and make an immediate impact as well. It’s a strong recruiting class and we’re really excited to see what they will be able to do for us.”

The point guard position is probably the most uncertain position for the Rattlers entering the 2008-2009 season, as they have no returnees. Zeleznak and his staff worked the recruiting trails and brought in five players who will battle for playing time at the point. Junior college transfers Curtis Mitchell (Jr., Milwaukee, Wis.) and Jeff Steinbaugh (Jr., Plano) come in as the favorites, as they both bring two years of college experience to the team.

“Both Curtis and Jeff are a little small, but shoot very well from the perimeter,” Zeleznak said. “They’re both capable of being leaders on the floor. I could see them splitting time, or both being on the floor at the same time because of their shooting.”

Looking to push Mitchell and Steinbaugh for playing time while gaining experience is a trio of freshmen: Jeffrey Campbell (Fr., Allen), D.J. Castro (Fr., El Paso) and Preston Jones (Fr., San Antonio).

“All three have different physical capabilities,” said Zeleznak. “Jeff played point off and on and is a little bigger than your average point guard at 6’2″, so he could give us a different look. Both D.J. and Preston have very good instincts and high basketball IQs.”

Amy brings two years of experience on the Rattler squad to lead the way at the shooting guard spot. Four players will battle with him for playing time this season: Darren Lee (Jr., Stockton, Calif.), John Roberts (Fr., San Antonio), Campbell and Mitchell.

“Darren is a true two-guard, has good secondary ball-handling skills, is a good shooter and has strong defensive intensity,” Zeleznak said. “We expect him to have a major impact on the team this season. John shoots very well. His development in other aspects of the game will take time, but we’re confident he will push for playing time right off.”

“Several of our point guards are capable of playing the two. Chris will get a chance because his off the ball skills are so good. Jeff is also capable of playing either guard spot because of his size.”

Anthony would seem to have a hammer-lock on the small forward position after earning All-Heartland Conference and Heartland Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. Aaron Thomas (Fr., San Antonio) and Kelly Carpenter (Fr., San Antonio) will push him for playing time this season.

Anthony averaged 5.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game last season, but it was his defensive play that made him a standout. Often paired up against the opposing team’s top scorer, Anthony excelled as a shutdown defender. In the Heartland Conference Tournament semifinals, he limited Incarnate Word’s leading scorer and All-American Pierce Caldwell to just two points after averaging 19.1 per game entering the game. He followed that up by holding defending Heartland Conference MVP Shawn Weinstein to just 2-of-8 shooting and 11 points in the tournament championship game against St. Edward’s University.

“Lorenzo has a great overall game and he has experience at the position, which should give the position stability,” Zeleznak said. “As Aaron improves he should be fun to watch. He brings high energy, good rebounding and is a strong help defender. Kelly is a very versatile player, who has worked hard in the offseason on his strength and conditioning to prepare him for the college game. Both Kelly and Aaron have the capability of being good rebounders and really helping us at the three spot.”

The post position could be a real position of strength for the Rattlers this season. With Morey back the Rattlers have a proven scorer and rebounder to start off. Luiz Moreira (Jr., Brasilia, Brazil) red-shirted last season, returns to the squad for 2008-09, while Tata saw action off the bench last season. Newcomers Brad Hubenak (Fr., Kennedale), Kevin Kotzur (Fr., La Vernia) and Marlon Smith (Fr., San Antonio) will look to press the returnees in their first season with the Rattlers.

An early season injury held up Morey’s progress in his first season with the team last year. But by February Morey was healed and Zeleznak unleashed the powerful 6’6″ forward. Morey ended the season averaging 8.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, but over the final 15 games of the season, Morey averaged nearly 10 points and 6 rebounds, despite playing an average of just 22 minutes per game. He posted two double-doubles, including a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in the first round of the NCAA South Central Regional against host Tarleton State University.

“We expect Nick to be at the top of our list in terms of post players,” said Zeleznak. “He’s a good perimeter shooter, which a lot of people didn’t get to see last year because of his injuries. He’s got a good work ethic and we expect big things from him this season.”

“Luiz will be a work in progress until he gets back into a game. The sooner he develops, the better it will be for him and us. We just need to get him back on the floor. At times Tata showed signs of being a consistent contributor and we want to see more of that this season.”

“Our three new post players all bring different skill sets to the team. Brad is an inside/outside guy. The transition should be easier for him. Marlon is a great athlete and we should see great strides in his game with him able to concentrate on just basketball this year after playing both basketball and football in high school. Kevin will see a change in the level of basketball coming from a small school, but he has good hands and is physical which should help him. All of these kids are capable of making immediate contributions.”

It won’t be long before Zeleznak and the Rattlers will be tested this season. For their season opener they head east to Pensacola, Fla., for the University of West Florida Invitational. At that tournament they will take on the host team, as well as Nova Southeastern University. Both return strong contingents of players from last season and are traditionally two of the best teams in their conferences, giving the Rattlers a good challenge from the start.

The Rattlers will play three of their next four games at home, but will be challenged by Lone Star Conference foes Angelo State University and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The Rattlers next big challenge will come when they host the River City Classic Dec. 19-20. The tournament, which features one of the top fields among Division II holiday tournaments, is again stacked this season.

“There are many different ways to schedule,” said Zeleznak. “The bottom line is that you’ve got to play good teams to get into the regional tournament. Our non-conference schedule should really help us. It could be tough early in the season, but later we will be really happy we played those teams.”

After the holidays, the Rattlers will dive straight into what should be one of the most competitive Heartland Conference races in recent years. St. Edward’s University won the regular season title in the Heartland last year and earned an at-large berth in the NCAA South Central Regional. They should be tough again this season. The University of the Incarnate Word finished second in the regular season race last year and is always a title contender. Dallas Baptist was a surprise contender last season and is expected to again challenge in its third year of basketball.

Conference newcomers Newman University, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and Texas A&M International University scored surprise wins last season and all could make noise in the conference again this year. Lincoln University and Oklahoma Panhandle State University are longtime members that will give the Rattlers a challenge.

“I really believe that the level of our conference is improving,” Zeleznak said. “On any given night the number nine team is strong enough to beat the number one team and that’s always a good thing for your conference to have that kind of depth. Having quality teams in the conference helps to prepare you for the postseason.”

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