San Antonio–There is excitement on the St. Mary’s University campus as fans await the start of the 2009-2010 basketball season. A strong finish to last season, despite a young and inexperienced team, combined with a strong returning cast of student-athletes has hopes high entering this season.

For the second straight season, St. Mary’s won 17 games. The Rattlers were the hottest team in the Heartland Conference over the final month of the season, going 9-2 to finish after an 8-9 start.  Along the way, they scored upsets of St. Edwards’ University and the University of the Incarnate Word on the road. They fell to Dallas Baptist University by four in the Heartland Conference Tournament semifinals.

With three starters returning, several key bench players back and a strong incoming class of players, the Rattlers look ready to challenge for the top spot in the Heartland Conference and a bid to the NCAA South Central Region Tournament this season.

“Coming off the last third of the season should help our confidence,” said head coach Jim Zeleznak. “We really started to come together during the spring. They tried to make themselves better.”

“I have a good feeling about this group. As the season goes on, I see these guys coming together when the conference season kicks in.”

The Rattlers are deep at guard, with both starters back, as well as several key reserves. Curtis Mitchell (Sr., Milwaukee) and Darren Lee (Sr., Stockton, Calif.) combined to start 40 games last season, while Jeff Campbell (So., Allen, Texas) and Jeff Steinbaugh (Sr., Plano, Texas) each saw extensive action at guard and return again this year.

Mitchell was an All-Heartland Conference selection in his first season with the Rattlers. He averaged 11.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He finished the season strong, scoring in double figures in 14 of the last 15 games.

Lee made a strong impact in his first season with the Rattlers, averaging 8.8 points and 2.2 rebounds per game at the shooting guard slot. He scored in double figures in 12 games, including a season-high of 23 points against 25th-ranked Harding University.

Campbell burst onto the scene last season, playing in all 28 games. He played at both the guard and post positions, starting the last 14 games. The versatile player averaged 6.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. His play made him a leading candidate for Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year.

Steinbaugh was a key player coming off the bench last season. He played in all 28 games, averaging 2.1 points, 0.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.  John Roberts (Fr., San Antonio) was a member of the team last season, but red-shirted. He should make his mark on the team this season.

Also battling for playing time this season will be Keith Hartle (Fr., San Antonio), a two-time all-district and preseason all-state pick as a senior.  As a junior he earned first team all-district honors after averaging 12 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals per game. A preseason injury ended his senior season early.

The Rattlers were hit hard at the forward spot with NCAA All-South Central Region perfomer Nick Morey gone after a strong 2008-2009 season. However, Aaron Thomas (So., San Antonio) is back, and head coach Jim Zeleznak and his staff hit the recruiting trail hard to make sure that the Rattlers would have the players they need in the post area.

Thomas worked his way into more and more playing time as the season went on last year. He finished by playing in 24 games, averaging 2.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. Thomas’ ability on both ends of the floor will make him a tremendous asset to the Rattlers again this season.

Two other players join the Rattlers this season at the forward spot and the competition should be intense for playing time. Gordon Ward (Jr., Galveston, Texas) and David Clark (Fr., San Antonio) join the team for the 2009-2010 season and will make the battle for playing time at the forward spots very interesting this season.

Ward joins the Rattlers after being out of basketball for the last two years. Prior to his two years off, he played at Independence Junior College, averaging 12 points and five rebounds per game. Prior to his time at IJC, he was a three-time all-district honoree at Ball High School in Galveston.

Clark was one of the top players in San Antonio last year, averaging 19.7 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. He earned all-district honors three times and helped lead Stacey High School to the region semifinals.

Nick Morey and Ronald Tata graduated after last season, leaving a hole in the post, but Luiz Moreira (Sr., Brasilia, Brazil), red-shirt freshmen Kevin Kotzur (Fr., La Vernia, Texas) and Brad Hubenak (Fr., Kennedale, Texas) are back to man the position this season. Jeremy Fonteneaux (So., DeSoto, Texas) and Johnathan Murphy (Jr., Decatur, Ga.) also join the mix for the post position this season.

Moreira worked his way into the starting lineup last year, playing in all 28 games, including 14 starts. He averaged 2.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest, while shooting 59.7 percent from the field.

Kotzur was a heavily honored high school athlete at La Vernia High School and after a year as a member of the Rattlers, he should be ready this season to challenge for playing time.

Hubenak red-shirted last season, but he is a player that Zeleznak will be relying on to step in and contribute right away this season.

Fontenaux comes to St. Mary’s from McClennan College, where he played the last two years. At DeSoto High School, Fontenaux was a McDonald’s All-American, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game. Murphy spent the last two years at Gadsden State Community College, where he averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Prior to that he helped lead Douglas Country High School to a state runner-up finish.

The Opposition
Another challenging non-conference slate will proceed the start of Heartland Conference play this season. St. Mary’s will face five teams that advanced to the NCAA South Central Region Tournament during the 2008-2009 season.

The Rattlers will start the season with a non-conference matchup against St. Thomas University on Nov. 15. They will then face Midwestern State University in the first of two meetings during the season on Nov. 18. St. Mary’s will take on regional foe and South Central Region participant Texas A&M University-Kingsville twice early in the season as well. Angelo State, who advanced to the NCAA regional last season, Texas A&M-Commerce and Southwestern University are included among the Rattlers non-conference foes.

“The schedule we have leading up to the conference season should help prepare us to compete in the Heartland Conference,” Zeleznak said. “I like the balance in the early part of the schedule.”

The Heartland Conference Tournament was awarded to St. Mary’s this season and will be held at Bill Greehey Arena on March 4-6. The tournament was also expanded from four to six teams this season, giving additional teams the opportunity to advance.

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