(Posted November 17, 2004)

Huntingdon, PA - Like a boulder rolling down a hill, the Juniata College men's basketball team keeps gaining momentum. The past two seasons have seen the Eagles finish better than .500 and be in contention for a conference postseason berth. This year, despite the loss of five seniors, the Eagles believe that they have the players to keep that rock rolling all the way into the postseason, and to contend for the conference's automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament.

The Eagles will get the season underway in the Mutual Benefit Group "Doc" Greene Tip-Off Tournament which will be November 20-21 in Huntingdon. Juniata will host Penn State-Berks at 3 pm on Saturday, with Thiel and Muskingum starting play at 1 on Saturday. The championship and consolation games will be at 3 pm and 1pm respectively on Sunday.

"We're fortunate to have the support of the Mutual Benefit Group which enables us to open the season with a home tournament," Juniata Head Coach Greg Curley said. "It should be an exciting tournament and a great test for us in the early season. We're very excited to get things going this year, and to see how the season will progress."

Curley's excitement is understandable. Juniata finished 13-12 in 2003-04, marking the second time in three seasons under Curley that the Eagles have topped the .500 mark. It was the first time since the late 1980s that the Eagles have finished better than .500 in back-to-back seasons. And while Juniata finished the year 5-8 in the always-challenging Commonwealth Conference, a number of tight games did not fall the team's way during the conference season. The coaching staff believes the talent is there for another run in conference play.

"We've got a chance to be a very good team," Curley explained. "The overall talent and athleticism of this team is as good as any I've coached. These guys have played together a lot, and they've been a great group to coach. I'm excited about this season."

How excited Curley gets will depend on how players adapt to new roles. Juniata is without a senior on the squad, and will rely on some sophomores and freshmen for contributions early in their careers. With the loss of the five seniors and captains from a season ago, there will be a need for players to take on larger roles both on and off the court.

"I am confident that we will be a good team at some point," Curley stated. "When it happens will be a matter of how quickly guys adapt to new roles. I've been very happy with the leadership at this point. The juniors have really grabbed this opportunity to make it their team and that should help us achieve the things we want to achieve."

Along with leadership, Curley will be looking for offense from several of his juniors. Junior swingman Travis Boyd (Juniata Valley/Barree) is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder and could be poised for a breakout junior season. Guard Tommy McConnell (Bishop Guilfoyle/Hollidaysburg) is another scoring threat in the backcourt as he averaged eight points per game as a junior. Both players have been regular starters since arriving on College Hill and will need to be even bigger parts of the offense this season. Sophomore Nick Hager (Franklin/Franklin) played in every game as a freshman and will be a major factor in his second season, as will Aaron Chamberlain (Tussey Mountain/Wood) who showed great improvement during his freshman campaign.

Though both those players will be handling a great portion of the perimeter scoring, the 2004-05 season could also see the Eagles look inside a little more. Juniata has ranked near the top of the conference and NCAA Division III in three-point field goals made the past few seasons, but a strong group of interior players could have the Blue and Gold playing inside-out more this year. Sophomore Chris Jasiota (Oil City/Oil City) is a skilled interior player with a strong all-around game who will be a big part of Juniata's plans this year. Add to that the return of Neil Holloway (Tussey Mountain/Saxton) who is a rugged interior defender and rebounder, along with the continued development of junior Jeff Byer (Conemaugh Twp./Davidsville) and Juniata will feature a trio of low-post players as strong as any group Curley has had since taking over the reigns of the Eagle program.

As has also become the norm at Juniata during his tenure, Curley has added several freshmen who could make immediate impacts. Kyle Opitz (Pine-Richland/Gibsonia) is a pure point guard who could help run the show in his freshman season while Justin Price (Mount Union/Mount Union) is a true scorer who could help the perimeter attack. Possibilities to add to the frontcourt are Steve Holencik (Moshannon Valley/Ramey) and Brett Ferko (Freeport/Sarver) who have both impressed the coaches with their wide array of skills.

With this many talented players in the fold, the talent-level on the court should allow Juniata to compete with anyone. But with that talent, the coaches will focus on fundamental things that could make the difference between being competitive and winning the close games.

"There are some basic areas where we're looking to get better," Curley said. "We've got to take better care of the ball, defend more aggressively and rebound more consistently. If we can do those things, with the talent we have, I like our chances."

The Eagles have a lot to prove after being picked to finish seventh of eight teams in the preseason conference coaches poll. Juniata hopes that the momentum they carry from the previous year can roll them right through those expectations, and into a conference postseason spot.


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Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.