Entering new era, Eagles look to maintain momentum from postseason

Brandon Troutman led the Eagles in 3-point shooting last season.
Brandon Troutman led the Eagles in 3-point shooting last season.

OKLAHOMA CITY (Nov. 2, 2012) – When last we saw the Oklahoma Christian Eagles, they were on a serious roll, sweeping to the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title and nearly taking down eventual national champion Concordia (Calif.) in the first round of the NAIA Division I tournament.

It’s been almost eight months, but the good news for OC fans is that the Eagles appear to be ready to pick up where they left off and carry the momentum from the 2011-12 postseason into this season, as the university moves into the Heartland Conference and begins the NCAA Division II membership process.

With their top nine players back, the Eagles could be primed for a season that will start Saturday at home against Central Bible (Mo.) and hopefully won’t end until the NCCAA tournament is played in Indiana in March.

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t come out of the gate strong,” OC coach Dan Hays said. “We’ve had a short number of practices, but with nine veterans, we didn’t appear to be behind in our preparation during our two scrimmages.”

On paper, at least, it looks like the Eagles have all the ingredients for a successful season – a talented point guard, a deep frontline led by a returning All-American, strong outside shooting, a deep bench and a veteran coaching staff led by Hays, who’s entering his 30th season at the OC helm.

“We’re really looking forward to the season,” Hays said. “I think our guys are confident. I think they’re hungry. They have really bought in to what we’re doing as coaching. They’ve really, really bought in. It’s a really good mix. You hope for that when you recruit them, but you don’t know. There are a lot of question marks out there, but they’re not on us. They’re on the opposition.”

Speedy junior point guard Kendre Talley blossomed during the postseason, earning SAC tournament most valuable player honors. He ranked in the top 20 in NAIA Division I last season in steals (2.5 per game) and assists (183, or 4.6 per game).

The other starting guard is sharpshooting senior Brandon Troutman, a cerebral player who shot a team-best 40.9 percent from 3-point range last season. A pair of sophomores, Willie Harper and Nick Tate, come off the bench and usually provide instant contributions – Harper with his long-range shooting, Tate with his ability to rebound and make clutch plays.

Senior swingman Devan White is an unquestioned leader on the team, one who does the dirty work that doesn’t always show up on stat sheets. White averaged 8.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season but the Hustle Award he received at the SAC tournament was more indicative of his contributions to the team.

As blessed as the Eagles are with a talented backcourt, they’re just as skilled and deep in the frontcourt. Senior 6-foot-10 center Will Reinke earned second-team NAIA All-America honors after ranking in the top 15 nationally in rebounds per game (9.3), field-goal percentage (59.3) and blocked shots per game (2.1). He led the Eagles in scoring at 16.5 points per game and also is a capable passer – he missed a triple-double last season against Mid-America Christian by just one assist.

Reinke’s backup, Eric Randall, would start for most small-college teams. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 9.2 points a game and has 3-point shooting range. The same can be said for the starting power forward, 6-foot-8 Derek Johnson. Both Johnson and Randall can stretch defenses with their shooting ability, opening lanes for OC’s guard to drive to the basket.

Sophomore forward Josh Faurot saw his playing time increase late in the season and provides the Eagles with a fourth dependable inside player.

Reserves Casey Covalt and Wesley Bradford also return from last season’s squad. Three freshmen – Myles Mukes, Collin Tubbs and Stephen Keese – could see spot action. The Eagles’ other freshman, Jordan VanDeKop, will take a redshirt season.

“The places where it’s hard to be good at, I think we’re very, very strong, and that’s the point and the post,” Hays said. “With Kendre and Will, I think both of them are elite small-college players. You could probably drop the ‘small-college’ and just say elite players. I think our athleticism has increased. We’ve got good depth.”

The Eagles have a schedule befitting a deep, veteran team. OC will be tested early with six games away from home by Dec. 1. Included in that stretch will be a trip to longtime rival Southern Nazarene; neutral-site games in Colorado against Division II power West Texas A&M and Midwestern State (Texas), which made the Division II Elite Eight last season; a visit to cross-Edmond rival Central Oklahoma to renew a long-dormant rivalry; and the Heartland Conference opener at Texas-Permian Basin.

OC isn’t eligible for the Division II postseason but can play in the NCCAA playoffs, although that would be no cakewalk. Among the NCCAA teams in OC’s region are Heartland foes Dallas Baptist (Texas) and McMurry (Texas), along with SNU, Mid-America Christian and Colorado Christian.

“We’re not scared of anybody,” Hays said. “Those teams playing us, I think they know we’re pretty good, too.”