Shepherd University basketball is back after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic. Jefferson County resident Rob Kuska is a career science writer and the author of three books on basketball. Kuska spoke with Justin Namolik, now entering his 14th season as head men’s basketball coach, to get his thoughts on Shepherd’s return to the hardwood and running a college basketball program during a pandemic.
Q: How’s the program doing after last year’s “lost season”?
Namolik: The program is in real good shape. But it’s definitely been a long 18 months. When the pandemic hit, we were concerned about our players academically. Shepherd, like most universities, transitioned to online classes, and our student-athletes are used to receiving in-person instruction. You’d think online classes would be a snap for technologically savvy young people. That’s not always the case. They’re so bombarded with information on their devices, many skim text and miss out on the finer details presented in an online class. So, we spent a lot of extra time and effort monitoring their academic work.
Q: Their wellbeing was paramount?
Namolik: Absolutely. And also working with their families. We kept parents in the loop, letting them know the obstacles to holding the season. Logistically, these obstacles were profound, and I was prepared mentally for the season’s cancellation. But I’m not sure our players were once the season was nixed.
Q: Could the players at least get into the gym last winter and practice?
Q: They could, with the necessary precautions. I’m so appreciative of Shepherd for that. The gym was our sanctuary. We got in 60 practices and three scrimmage games last year. Now, we’re anxious to get back on the court and play real games. This year, the team will push the ball even more on offense, and we’ve got the athletes to make the added pace fun for fans to watch. As always, there’s not going to be any quit in us. We’ll compete tooth and nail.
Q: You had a relatively young nucleus before the pandemic. Is that still the case?
Namolik: We’re still young on paper. We lost two upperclassmen to graduation during the off-year, and we’re bringing in two incoming freshman classes (2020, 2021). That translates to six freshmen and three sophomores on our 12-man roster.
Q: But those returning sophomores are good ones.
Namolik: For sure. We’re expecting breakout seasons from sophomore guards Daniel McClain-Corley (Clinton, MD, 8.4 ppg) and Phillip Jordan (Rockville, MD, 7.8 ppg). We also brought in sophomore Jordan Gibson (Bristow, VA), a D-I transfer from Presbyterian College. He’s a promising addition. This trio joins senior forwards Kyle Daggett (Walkersville, MD, 11.5 ppg) Cam Stephens (Bunker Hill, WV, 3.9 ppg), and Noah Wimbush (Fairdale, WV, 2.4 ppg). Plus, we’ve got our outstanding junior guard Jon Preston (Brandywine, MD, 11.4 ppg). And don’t forget the freshmen.
Q: How far will all this talent take Shepherd in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC)? The Rams were picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish sixth in the PSAC’s nine-school Eastern Division?
Namolik: Well, two things. First, I would think the other PSAC schools are in the same boat as us. It’s been a long 18 months. Secondly, with such a young team at Shepherd, all that extra practice time last year has allowed our players to really grow. I believe in our guys, and I’m confident that we’re ready to compete in the PSAC, one of the nation’s toughest NCAA D-II conferences.
Q: What are the can’t-miss games that readers should circle on their calendars?
Namolik: West Chester (Jan 8), East Stroudsburg (Jan 26), and Shippensburg (Feb 23).
Q: Which visiting players will folks definitely want to catch live?
Namolik: Shippenburg’s Jake Bliss and East Stroudsburg’s Marc Rodriquez. Be sure also to watch West Chester’s Josh Samec, Millersville’s Jaden Faulkner, and Gannon’s Chris Clancy.
Q: For those in the community who might want to make a donation to the Shepherd’s men’s basketball program or just get involved, how would they do that?
Namolik: Our main fundraising initiative is the Hardwood Club. Its monies go toward scholarships and program enhancements. Also, the players are happy to roll up their sleeves and help out on special projects within the community. Just let us know what you need, but give us some advance notice. I’d also say if you want to get involved, introduce yourself to me or an assistant coach after a game. That’s one of the nice things about D-II sports. D-II teams are a part of the community.
Visit ShepherdRams.com online for current team, ticket and game information. Fans can follow the team on Facebook (@ShepherdHoops). For information about donations to support scholarship assistance and program enhancements, visit the Hardwood Club (web: SUAthleticClub.org/hardwood-club). The basketball team plays its home games at the Butcher Center on the Shepherd University campus. The 2021-2022 season tips off against Frostburg State on November 17 and runs through February 2022. Season passes are $100 (includes tickets to all men’s and women’s home basketball games); single game tickets are $5. Purchase online at ShepherdRams.UniversityTickets.com.By Bob Kuska