By Jeff Nations
Right about now might be a good time to start planning a trip to Shenandoah University's Shingleton Gymnasium to catch a men's basketball game.
If you were hoping to see a milestone, you're too late. With SU's season-opening 84-77 victory over former USA South Conference rival Methodist on Nov. 15, a long and dismal stretch of basketball for the program came to an end when Shenandoah snapped a 19-game losing streak which closed another bleak campaign. Last year, Shenandoah struggled to a 3-23 overall mark made worse by a horrible debut as a member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. Shenandoah went 0-16 in conference play, although it was later awarded a win after Bridgewater was forced to forfeit a handful of games for using an ineligible player -- small consolation, that.
There might well be another milestone in the offing, and perhaps not too far off. The Hornets are off to a strong 3-1 start already this season -- equaling last year's win total already. Can that first ODAC victory (on the court) be far off? Shenandoah will get its first chance on Saturday on the road at Lynchburg, then another when they host Guilford before diving back into the non-conference part of the schedule.
Of course, Shenandoah didn't start off last season all that badly, either, and see where that got the Hornets. Shenandoah was at one point 2-2 in coach Rob Pryor's second season guiding the program, and was still not looking too bad at 3-4 before falling into that agonizing losing spell for the rest of the season.
There's good reason to think this start isn't the basketball equivalent of fool's gold, and it starts with the Hornets' talented starting backcourt. Senior shooting guard Avery Green, who was sidelined with a season-ending knee injury after just nine games last season, is back and looking like his old self once again. That's great news for Shenandoah fans, considering that Green led the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game as a sophomore.
In Shenandoah's season-opening win against Methodist, Green poured in a game-high 29 points on 10 of 17 shooting from the field. Green followed up the next night with a nearly identical stat line -- 29 points off 11 of 16 shooting as the Hornets beat Hood, 76-71, to win the BB&T Tip-Off Classic at Shingleton. For his efforts, Green was named the ODAC's Player of the Week -- the first Shenandoah men's basketball player to ever earn that honor.
Green's backcourt mate, junior point guard Jared Carithers, showed he hasn't lost the scoring touch he flashed last season when he led the team with 13 points an outing. Carithers chipped in 13 points to back Green's game-high 23 as the Hornets topped North Carolina Wesleyan, 87-80, on the road last Friday to push their record to 3-0.
Mary Washington snapped SU's modest win streak the next night to deny the Hornets another tournament title at Hampden-Sydney College, but there were still plenty of positives even in that 77-69 setback. Green, rapidly developing into a deadly scorer, poured in a career-high 37 points. It was best single-game scoring performance by an SU player since Chris Rhone notched 37 nearly a decade before.
Green and Carithers have provided much of the scoring punch so far, but the Hornets have other strengths to rely on this year. Senior captain Bryce Mitchell is back to provide a reliable spark off the bench, last year's leading rebounder Xavier Alston is doing it again this year, and the Hornets have some desperately needed size in the frontcourt after battling last season with just one player taller than 6-foot-3.
Shenandoah hasn't given its fans much to get excited about for the past few years. The Hornets' last winning season, 16-12, was back in 2007-08. This team might not be ready to end that streak of losing seasons -- how the Hornets fare in the tough ODAC will largely determine that -- but so far Pryor's team has been putting on a show. It's only four games, true, but SU's scoring average of 79 points per outing is the best since the 1998-99 squad averaged 81 point per game.
All in all, it should be enough to fill a few more seats at Shingleton this winter. If the Hornets keep this up, those seats could be harder to come by soon enough.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>