Ashland University's men's basketball team is hard at work to ensure that the success it's had over the last three seasons carries over to a fourth – and beyond.
The Eagles ended the 2016-17 season at 19-10, and were just 31 seconds away from going back to the NCAA Division II postseason for a second year in a row. Those 19 wins give Ashland's men 63 over the last three seasons, the most for the program in a three-season stretch since 1989-90 to 1991-92 (69).
"We overcame a lot of adversity this year," said Ashland head coach John Ellenwood, now 128-93 (.579) in eight seasons guiding the Eagles. "Not having our returning leading scorer and leading rebounder and all-conference guy (senior forward Wendell Davis), and to finish the way we did was a tremendous accomplishment for our guys. They deserve all the credit that they could possibly get.
"We deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament this year, and halfway through the year, that was a pipe dream."
Ashland's 2016-17 campaign included a 12-4 record from Jan. 7 to the end of the season – a stretch which included a seven-game winning streak and five wins in six games going into the program's first-ever Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament championship game.
"Guys have to dream and believe in what they're playing for," Ellenwood said. "We have guys that understand that very well. That's the culture thing that's changed. They want to accomplish something great, and they want to do better than the class before them."
Two of the milestones the Eagles hit was defeating outgoing conference rival Findlay twice in one season, and scoring 100 points vs. the Oilers in the neutral-site GLIAC Tournament semifinal on March 4. It was the first time Ashland beat Findlay twice in a season since 1998-99, and the first time ever reaching the century mark in the series.
Davis will make his anticipated return in 2017-18 after missing all of 2016-17 due to injury. Davis comes into his final season as the program's 13th all-time leading scorer with 1,331 career points.
"I'm excited, especially on the offensive end next year, about our team," Ellenwood said. "Wendell Davis coming back is a huge gain for us. Just because he wasn't playing doesn't mean he wasn't learning. He was basically a player-coach last year for us. His intelligence in the game and his understanding of where coaching staffs come from, he understands that. And he can now relate that to the team better.
"That's a huge advantage for us."
The Eagles have three returning starters from 2016-17 in senior forward Marsalis Hamilton (9.9 ppg., 6.6 rpg., 3.1 apg., 52.7 FG%), junior guard Ben Haraway (10.6 ppg., 3.0 rpg., 3.3 apg., 49.2 FG%) and senior center Teddy Metzen (5.4 ppg., 2.4 rpg., 53.7 FG%). In the last four games of the season, Hamilton averaged 17.8 points per game while hitting 65.2 percent from the field.
"Marsalis, he was one possession away from being the MVP of our (conference) tournament," said Ellenwood. "That's a huge springboard for him. This offseason is the best offseason he's ever had."
Ashland's reserve corps that will look to make even more of an impact next season includes junior guard Nick Bapst (8.1 ppg., 50.6 FG%, 40.8 3FG%), junior forward Phil Frentsos (4.9 ppg., 2.3 rpg.) and sophomore center Drew Noble (4.4 ppg., 3.1 rpg., 55.7 FG%, 85.4 FT%). In his last three games of 2016-17, Bapst scored 48 points and hit 9-of-16 from beyond the arc.
The aforementioned seven players will be joined by a pair of freshmen coming off of redshirt, guard Aaron Thompson and guard/forward Joey Rolwing, as well as incoming freshmen Heath Starkey (Colonel Crawford High School center) and Ryan Batte (Cincinnati Oak Hills High School guard).
"We have guys who are believing in what we're trying to accomplish here, and we want to win with the right type of people," Ellenwood said, "make sure we get high-quality guys that you can cheer for."
In Ellenwood's eight seasons, Ashland has had six seasons of .500-or-better finishes, including the last three seasons with a .655 winning percentage or better – the program's best stretch in nearly three decades.
The goal moving forward is simple – maintain and build.
"We continue to grow up with the next guys that are coming in," Ellenwood said. "You want to do something that nobody else has done in the recent past here, and that's what these guys are trying to accomplish."