BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - After the Union men's basketball team came painfully close
to the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament championship, second year
head coach Sean Gillespie looks to use more than a few fresh faces to try to
equal the Bulldogs' success of a season ago.
In 2009-10, Union finished with a 20-13 overall record and a
11-5 mark in the AAC. The Bulldogs shared a portion of the AAC championship for
the first time since joining in the conference before the 2000-01 season. The
title was also the first conference title for the Union program since the
Bulldogs captured the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title during
the 1971-72 season.
However, most of the key pieces from last year's squad have
moved on, so Gillespie will look to insert a mixture of newcomers to try to equal
the success of a season ago.
"We really like the group of guys that are here and in the
program," said Gillespie. "They really
do a good job of coming in and ‘punching' the clock, so to speak. They are a very blue collar group of guys.
"There are a lot of new faces here in the program with a lot
of freshmen. Our coaching staff realized that we will need to be a bit
patient here early on as it will take a bit of time to put all the pieces
At the point, Union will look to four players to share the
responsibility of running the squad on the floor. Included in this group is one
of the two returning players on the Bulldog roster in senior Shawn Hadley, who
saw action in 32 of the 33 games last season. Hadley will share the point with
three newcomers - sophomores Ryan Young and James Strange, along with senior Antonio
Murry, who returns to the Union lineup after sitting out the entire 2009-10
On the wing, new faces will once again look to pace the
Bulldogs on the offensive end and contribute on the defensive end. Like at the
point, the Bulldogs will mix things up at the position and just like the point,
one player returns from the group that looks to play.
The returnee is junior Payton Ponzer, who played in all 33
games the Bulldogs played on the season in ‘09-10, while making 18 starts and
averaging 9.7 points per game. The rest of the group is new to the Union
squad. Included are sophomores Turrell
Morris, Vinny Coleman and Brent Cork, along with freshman Madison Johnson and
Inside the paint, the Bulldogs lost two players who were to
be counted on to solidify the Bulldog interior offense and defense. Because of
this, Gillespie and the Union coaching staff had to adjust on the fly and move
players not normally accustomed to playing the post. However, the trio of
junior Ian Davis, sophomore transfer Tyler Smothers and freshman Cody Miller
are looking to step up in the position and looking to cause serious matchup
problems for bigger opposing players throughout the season.
In the conference's preseason poll, Union was slated to
finish fifth in the AAC, with Bryan picked by the conferences coaches as the
league's preseason favorite. The
position in the poll is a familiar one for the Bulldogs, as a season ago; they
were slated to finish in a tie for fifth in the preseason list.
"The AAC is competitive as ever this year," said Gillespie. "Every
program in the conference has improved through recruiting. You look at Bryan, Bluefield, TWC, and
Milligan all having brought back many of their players from last year as well
as Montreat, Reinhardt, and Virginia Intermont having improved through the
"We can't afford to take a night off in this league. The hardest part about this league is being
able to win on the road. That is
something that we see is the key to be successful in this conference."
The Bulldogs open the season on Nov. 2 with a matchup at
Robsion Arena with Shawnee State, then host back-to-back home contests against
teams from the state of Indiana in IU-East and Indiana Wesleyan. On Nov. 12 and
13, the Bulldogs host Southern Virginia and Alice Lloyd in the Union College
It is at this point where the Bulldogs will log plenty of
time on charter buses, as the squad plays 14 games away from Robsion Arena in a
row. During this period, the team will play in several classics at Sterling,
Lincoln Memorial, Berea and Asbury College. The team will also entertain NCAA
Division II foes LMU and Carson-Newmann and have two exhibition contests
against NCAA Division I members Liberty on Dec. 28 and Louisiana Monroe n Jan
The Bulldogs finally return home on Jan. 8, when AAC play
convenes with a matchup with Reinhardt. Union opens the conference slate two
days earlier at Virginia Intermont.
"Overall, our schedule is tough," said Gillespie. "We
decided this year that we wanted to begin to measure ourselves against
successful programs and to do that you have to compete against them. We understand the challenge ahead of us and
are looking forward to the climb up the steep mountain."
Despite all the new faces on the roster, the expectations
are still high for Gillespie, who look to build on a successful rookie season
as head coach, in which his team came mere seconds away from winning the AAC
tournament and qualifying the NAIA national tournament. Overall, Gillespie believes
a tough schedule will challenge the Bulldogs and by the end of the season,
Union will finish what they started last year.
"Everything that we do with our schedule and otherwise is to
build towards the last week of February and the conference championship
tournament," noted Gillespie. "Its been
42 years now since this program has been to the National Tournament and we are
working towards seeing that streak end."