In March, the Cougars were in the Sweet Sixteen of the national tournament when the rug was pulled out from under their feet, along with the rest of postseason sports in the country.
This year, a deeper and more experienced team will go for the conference, but making every day count is the main goal this year, as sports hang in the balance as winter approaches. With a shortened preseason and gym doors closed for the summer, Head Coach Eric Echelbarger stressed the importance of experience in his third year.
“Given the fact that we do have a lot of seniors returning, they know what we’re looking to do, and they can pick up on that very quickly,” Echelbarger said. “Obviously it’s going to take a little time. We’re not there yet, but they kind of know where we want to go to, where we’ve been. And so I think we’re going to see some good progress forward quickly.”
So far, he said the team is grateful to be out there and playing. Nothing can be taken for granted this season. The players have had it all taken from them before, he said, so they are giving great effort and have bought in so far.
The execution needs some work, he said. It’s not his players’ fault; it’s just a matter of not being together for most of the offseason.
“We’ve only been going as a team for about one month, so the effort is there. The execution is not where we want it to be right now,” he said. “We have a big returning class, but we also have a very large newcomer class. So we’re trying to integrate some very key pieces which are in our newcomer class, and those guys are really trying to pick things up on the fly.”
It’s not a well-oiled machine as of yet, but Echelbarger has liked what he’s seen so far. The Cougars squeezed out an overtime victory at Lincoln to start the year and competed well against a good Huntington team, though came up short. These little kinks will be worked out as the team continues to play together more.
“It’s hard to compartmentalize things like that this year. I think there’s bigger challenges out there than just saying we want to win the conference,” he said. “I think it’s a year where you have to take it day by day, literally. I think the teams that have the most success this year may be the teams that are fortunate enough to stay away from the virus.”
Echelbarger said the Cougars’ schedule changed five times in the past couple days, so really taking it a day at a time is all they can do. IU Kokomo has bought in on and off the court and will do what they can to control what they can.
River States Conference policy states any team that contracts a positive test must be sidelined for 14 days.
“We’re trying to not get ahead of ourselves, trying to stay in the day, trying to get better. We have a long way to go to get to where we want to be, but if we can kind of, each day, make some improvement and keep grinding away then I think we have a chance to have an excellent season. And some of that will have to do with the virus and being able to not run into it,” Echelbarger said.