Hornets hoping experience leads to more success on court this season

Shenandoah's Jordan Hunter fires a shot over Bridgewater's Tim Dougan during a game last season. Hunter returns as a team captain for a Hornets squad seeking improvement this season. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s men’s basketball team lost three starters from last season’s 6-20 team that finished with just three wins in Old Dominion Athletic Conference play for the second straight season. Twelve of the Hornets’ 21 players this season are newcomers to the program, and eight of those 21 are freshmen. Experience, however, may just be SU’s strong suit this year.

With 11 juniors and seniors, all of whom have college basketball experience at SU or elsewhere, Hornets head coach Rob Pryor feels he has the proper formula to continue building the chemistry and culture he envisions existing within the struggling program.

“I think more in the past we haven’t had the experience for younger guys to look up to. Now they have that,” said Pryor, who is entering his sixth season and has a 31-100 record as the Hornets’ head coach, last Wednesday. “They have role models, they have guys that are doing things the right way, taking care of their bodies, accepting coaching, working on their games outside practice, and it’s made a world of difference in our culture and our chemistry just to have leadership.”

Three of SU’s top five scorers from last season return to lead an offense that Pryor said should be the Hornets’ greatest strength on the court in the 2016-17 season. That trio includes 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior guard Malcolm Clark, who finished last season as the ODAC’s second leading scorer and led the Hornets in points (18.5 per game) and rebounds (7.4).

“Malcolm has matured a lot from last season,” Pryor said. “I thought there were times where he could’ve practiced harder but it really wasn’t his fault because he could go 70 percent and beat the guy that was behind him in practice. But now because of so much competition in practice it’s brought the best out of him.”

Also back is senior captain E.J. Baltimore (7.1 points per game last year), a point guard who led the Hornets in assists (3.8 per game) and steals (1.3) a season ago. Baltimore will often share the floor with fellow point guard Jonah Meredith, Pryor said, giving SU two ball-handlers who can initiate the offense and attack pressure defense.

Pryor added that sophomore forward Gabriel Gonzalez, who averaged 7.6 points and 3.3 rebounds last season, has entered the new year with a more mature mindset and should make a bigger impact for the Hornets this winter.

“I think we’re gonna be a good offensive team. We have multiple guys who can score in different ways – pro step, drive, making threes – which is something that we struggled with in the past,” said Pryor, whose team ranked 10th of 12 teams in the conference in scoring (67.8 points per game) and 11th in 3-point shooting percentage last season.

“My big thing is gonna be our identity has to be defending and rebounding. I don’t know where we’ll end up at the end of the year in terms of league rank in those categories but we know we have to improve significantly, especially with the way that we can score. If we can improve defensively that’ll go along way.”

Last season the Hornets were 11th in the ODAC in rebounding – and last in defensive rebounding – and surrendered 75.8 points per contest, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Pryor said the Hornets feature more height than last winter – Meredith and Gonzalez are both 6-foot-7 – and he expects 6-8 junior Derrick Perry to serve as the anchor for SU’s defense, which Pryor feels will be able to effectively vary throughout the season based on matchups and game flow.

“I think the players, the ones that were here last year are better this year and I think the ones that we brought in this year are mature enough and hungry for an opportunity to contribute to a team that’s gonna be successful,” Pryor said. “So I think defensively whatever we do, as long as the guys are bought into it it’ll work for us.”

Shenandoah, which has won more than six games just once in the last six seasons and has not won more than four conference games in any season since joining the ODAC, was picked 11th in the conference’s preseason coaches poll.

Shenandoah played an exhibition game against Norfolk State on Sunday and will officially begin its 2016-17 season with a road trip to Washington College on Tuesday.

“Our goal every season is to get to Salem. It’s something that we haven’t done here as a program,” said Pryor, referring to the location of conference tournament’s quarterfinal, semifinal and championship rounds. “… I think that’s been our focus, because we feel like the way the ODAC is, as long as you can get to Salem and be in that final eight then anything can happen.

“But at the same time I think our staff and our players realize that it’s something that happens a day at a time, you know, and it’s gonna take hard work, it’s gonna take commitment and it’s gonna take everybody working together to reach that goal.”

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