Hornets’ Starks matures on, off court

Shenandoah's Jimi Starks outruns Bridgewater's Tavis Stapleton on a fast-break basket to end the first half of an ODAC basketball game last season at Singleton Gymnasium in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University junior Jimi Starks experienced a transformation following the end of the 2013-14 men’s basketball season.

The Hornets had just finished up a 12-14 (4-12 Old Dominion Athletic Conference) season back in late February and, despite the losing record, had made tremendous strides as a program looking to reclaim some respectability after winning just eight games over the previous two seasons.

There were plenty of factors that contributed to Shenandoah’s growth as a team last season, but in Starks’ eyes, the most important was the leadership of the Hornets’ upperclassmen and the way they carried themselves in front of their younger teammates.

“One thing that I learned from last season is attitude is very essential to winning and losing,” Starks said on Wednesday.

Knowing that he would be put in a leadership role this season as a junior and two-year college player, Starks made a focused effort this offseason to become the type of player and role model that he feels is essential to any successful team.

“After my sophomore year we felt a little let down,” Starks said. “We did good, but I felt we could’ve done so much better. Personally I didn’t want to have that feeling of regret ever again. I knew that we had a lot of good freshmen coming in, so personally I worked harder than I ever had. It was a lot of mental work, too, because I’m an upperclassman now. I couldn’t act the way I was acting the last couple years.”

Starks, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound guard/forward, has always been an energetic player for head coach Rob Pryor and the Hornets, a trait that correlates with his hometown Miami, a city that Starks says is “crazy and hectic all the time.”

But his high energy hasn’t always translated into success on the court. Starks’ teammate, senior Jared Carithers, says Starks was a “loose off the handle” player who sometimes suffered from mental lapses on the court when he arrived on SU’s campus as a freshman back in 2012. Carithers added that he and Starks — who both arrived at SU the same year — would often “butt heads” early in their Shenandoah careers, and both players acknowledged Wednesday that there was a mutual dislike between them that first season.

Carithers — who now considers Starks to be one of his closest friends — said Starks is a noticeably different player this season. Pryor added that Starks has found a way to channel his high energy in a positive way. It’s for that reason that Pryor and the rest of the Hornets’ coaching staff fully supported Starks being voted a team captain by his teammates recently.

“His maturity level has definitely increased since he’s been here,” Pryor said. “And I tell the team this all the time, in all my years of coaching I’ve never seen a guy grow as much as Jimi has from his freshman year to his junior year. It’s really been remarkable.”

Starks’ leadership will be critical for Shenandoah this season. So will his on-court performance.

Shenandoah will need to find some way to make up for the graduation loss of guard Avery Green, who was sixth in all of Division III men’s basketball last season in scoring (24.2 points per game).

Carithers, who averaged 14.5 points per game last winter, is the Hornets’ top returning scorer, while Starks was third on the team with a 7 points-per-game average while starting in 17 of his 23 games played.

“The change in our team is we’re going to be by committee this year and the goal is to have four to five guys average between 9 and 13 points a game. We feel like Jimi has to be one of those guys in order for us to be successful,” Pryor said.

Starks, who said he worked extensively on his jump shot while also trying to add muscle during the offseason in preparation for the heavy workload he’s expecting this year, acknowledged that the Hornets face a challenge with Green’s departure. But he added that it also gives some of Shenandoah’s players an opportunity to make an extensive impact.

“It’s about being efficient. Everyone has to do their own thing,” Starks said. “Avery leaving, it’s a big blow to the program but at the same time it’s a good thing, too. Everyone has more of an opportunity to shine and show what they can do.”

Though Carithers and Starks are the only Hornets returnees to have started at least 17 games last season, Shenandoah does feature some returning experience and will not have a freshman in its starting lineup for the first time in Pryor’s four seasons as SU’s head coach.

Senior forward Xavier Alston (4.9 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game) returns after playing in 25 of 26 games last season, and sophomore Brandon Pressley — a Mountain View Christian Academy grad who joined the team for the second half of the season last year — will start at center this season after averaging 4.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 13 games last winter.

Pryor also is excited about the addition of junior guard Malcolm Clark, a transfer from Hagerstown (Maryland) Community College whom Pryor said resembles a taller version of Green.

Shenandoah will continue to utilize the Princeton-style offense this season, although Pryor noted that the Hornets will be doing “less” offensively while providing “more of a framework to score instead of maybe dictating everything.”

Defensively, the Hornets plan to utilize full-court man-to-man pressure this season, something that SU moved away from during the second half of last year.

“We’re not very big … so we have to make the other teams’ big guys work on the offensive end and hopefully they become less effective as the game goes on,” Pryor said.

Shenandoah, which won its first ODAC game last season — its second year in the league — was recently picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the conference’s preseason coaches poll. That’s giving the Hornets a little extra push as they open their season on Saturday with an exhibition game at George Mason before beginning their regular season with their home BB&T Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 15.

“One thing that Coach Pryor said that stuck with me is that we’re not going to finish 11th. And I know everyone believes that,” Starks said. “Everyone believes that we’re not going to finish 11th. We still haven’t made the name. We haven’t earned the respect that we think we deserve, but I feel like this is the year where they’ll know they picked wrong.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com