WINCHESTER — Umpqua Community College men’s basketball coach Daniel Leeworthy expects to hang a Northwest Athletic Conference tournament championship banner in the Riverhawks’ gym at the end of the season.
“This is our 51st year of UCC men’s basketball and I think this is the year where we get to hang the championship banner,” Leeworthy said. “Obviously we need a little bit of luck along the way, but we’ve definitely got our eyes on the championship. But first things first, and that’s to win the South region.”
Eric Klekas and Connor Shaw are returning starters and team captains for Umpqua. They were the second- and third-leading scorers for the Riverhawks last season behind Ethan Betts, who graduated.
“Year in and year out we seem to lose our top freshmen from the year before to a four-year school, which is a good thing for our program but it has a downside as well,” Leeworthy said. “We’ve got Eric and Connor back, we’ve got all this size, and we’re a lot longer as well.”
The biggest difference will be the size increase on the Riverhawks’ roster, there are seven players taller than 6-foot-6. John Morrill-Keeler, out of Pacific High School in Port Orford, is the tallest player on the roster. He stands 6-10 tall and weighs about 240 pounds.
“We’ve still got a couple of really good guards in Connor and Eric. They put up about 14-15 points each game at the end of last year,” Leeworthy said. “We can play inside-out and play at different speeds. All our bigs can run, so they can play very fast. Our inside presence will dictate a lot of our offense and how fast we play.”
Shaw and Klekas were selected as team captains for their work on and off the court. They each have a 3.9 GPA.
Another team captain will be chosen by the team prior to the official start of the season.
“I want to be a leader who is a floor general out there and lead our team, on and also off the court,” Shaw said. “I want to one-up what we did last year.”
Last season, Umpqua finished tied for third in the Southern Region, but based on tiebreakers did not make it to the NWAC tournament.
The Riverhawks made it to the Final Four in 2017.
Umpqua played a jamboree earlier this week and will host an exhibition game against Multnomah’s junior varsity team at 7 p.m. Friday.
“We should be able to play with them,” said Cameron Benzel, a UCC freshman forward and Oakland High graduate. “We’ll see how we do. Everyone will get some playing time.”
The real challenge will come in the official season opener on Nov. 16 against Snow College, a four-year college in Utah. It will be the first of three games on a road trip to Salt Lake City.
“It just happened to be within our budget, and it’s good for recruiting to go play some games and it’ll be a great experience for our guys to go fly and play in Utah,” Leeworthy said.
The Riverhawks have seven Utah athletes on the roster this year: Shaw, Brock Gilbert, Spencer Campbell, Jacob Sutton, Kolten Mortensen, Tucker Peterson and Tyler Marz.
“Through my connections there I can recruit really well and the top tier players that don’t go (Division I) or (Division II), we can recruit those,” Leeworthy said.
Leeworthy is expecting a pretty good crowd of Riverhawk supporters to show up in the Salt Lake Community College gymnasium that weekend.
“I’ve got family coming. I’ve got old friends from high school coming,” Shaw said. “We’re playing some really good teams down there, so it’ll be really cool to go play some of the best competition.”
Salt Lake CC is No. 8 in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division I preseason rankings.
While seven team members have called Utah home, it will be the first time Benzel travels to the Beehive State.
Benzel is the lone Douglas County recruit on the 15-man roster, but one of six from Oregon.
“(Benzel) is doing really good,” Leeworthy said. “It’s been an adjustment for him. It’s obviously a different system and it’s college basketball, but he’s enjoying it. He’s learning a lot. I think he’s really improved since he arrived here.”
Benzel added, “They’re fun guys to be around and do things outside of basketball with. School is great here. I’m really liking it all ... my goal as a freshman coming in, with a bunch of other guys competing for time, is just to get better, faster, stronger, make my mark and play my role.”
Morrill-Keeler and Jack Lehnherr graduated from Pacific High, Jordan Ehrhardt hails from Rogue River, Parker Wynn from Triangle Lake, and Max Martin of The Dalles transferred to UCC from Linfield. Klekas went to Elko High School in Elko, Nevada, and Alec Hillman is a native of Australia.
“We’ve got a mature group of guys,” Leeworthy said, explaining that three of the players went on missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“They’re mature because they’ve been out and been independent and been amongst other cultures,” Leeworthy said. “I think that’ll equate to good leadership.”
Leeworthy and the team captains hope that leadership and maturity will help them get some hardware this season.
“Our short term goal is to be South Region champs,” Shaw said. “Then playoffs and the championship after that.”