(Posted November 15, 2005)

Huntingdon, PA - It takes a lot of different pieces to make a top-level basketball team. The Juniata College men's basketball team enters the 2005-06 season with a roster loaded with experience and seems poised to once again be in competition for a Commonwealth Conference postseason berth. After suffering through some growing pains last season, the Eagles believe they have all the necessary pieces, and just need to put them together to enjoy a memorable season.

Juniata begins the year once again with the Mutual Benefit Group "Doc" Greene Tip-Off Tournament November 18 and 19. The event will give the Eagles strong early-season competition, while allowing the team to open the year on its home court. It's a benefit that could help build confidence after the late struggles last season.

"We have put together an extremely tough schedule that should challenge our team early on," Juniata Head Coach Greg Curley said. "The support from The Mutual Benefit Group has allowed us to bring in some very strong programs and have a great tournament. It should be a great start to what we think could be a big year."

Those hopes for a big year are based on the large number of returning talented players on the Eagles roster. The team returns its top-10 scorers, rebounders and assists leaders from last year's team. And while that group struggled at times, closing the year with a 9-16 record, that has given those returning players the incentive to attack the new season with renewed energy.

Along with the new season, the talent on hand will direct the Eagles towards a slightly different style of play. A perimeter-oriented team over the past few seasons this year's team features several talented post players who could have the team running its offense through the low block. Senior Travis Boyd (Juniata Valley/Baree), junior Chris Jasiota (Oil City/Oil City) and sophomore Brian Cannon (Fallston/Fallston, Md.) are all versatile, talented players who will be focal points of the team's offense. Boyd led the team in scoring and rebounding as a junior, while Jasiota was second in both categories. Cannon averaged 12.1 points per game to lead the team over the final seven games last season and could be an even bigger factor as a sophomore. Junior Neil Hollowy (Tussey Mountain/Saxton) and senior Jeff Byer (Conemaugh Twp./Davidsville) will both add depth and help try and bolster the interior defense and rebounding, two areas of concern for the coaches.

"Chris and Brian give us as strong a pair of post players as any team in the conference and Travis may he the toughest, most skilled player we have," Curley said. "They can all do a lot of different things, and are very capable of having big seasons. This is as strong and deep a collection of post players as we've had since I've been here."

If possible, the Eagles may have even more depth on the perimeter than they do inside. Senior point guard Tommy McConnell (Bishop Guilfoyle/Hollidaysburg) has started for three seasons, and will direct the team's attack in his senior year. Juniors Nick Hager (Franklin/Franklin) and Aaron Chamberlain (Tussey Mountain/Wood) are both talented scorers who will look build on their successes to enjoy big junior years. Chamberlain was tabbed as the team's most valuable player last season, while Hager is one of the team's top long-range marksmen. Both players are also key components of Juniata's perimeter defense. Also in the mix will be sophomores Kyle Opitz (Pine Richland/Gibsonia) and Brent Ferko (Freeport/Sarver) who both saw considerable playing time as freshmen and expect to see their production increase as sophomores.

"We have a number of guys who can produce for us in the backcourt," Curley said. "It's a well-rounded group that has a lot of experience. Tommy and Nick are going to be key parts of what we do. We're counting on Tommy to run the team and make decisions that are expected of a senior point guard. Nick is a tough defender and a great perimeter shooter. His ability to hit shots consistently will be a big key for us. Aaron brings toughness and energy at both ends of the court. I think the experience we have at the guard positions will be critical."

If there's one element that may play the biggest role in helping Juniata take the next step towards competing for a conference title it would be experience. The team features a pair of three-year starters, along with three juniors who have logged significant minutes over their careers. This group has played in, and won big games, while helping the team enjoy back-to-back winning seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04 and compete for conference postseason berths both years. The Eagles believe that it's now time for that experience to start paying dividends.

"The guys realize that this is the time they need to step up," Curley said. "The experience this team has will have to help us as we move forward. They have seen a lot of things over the past few seasons and they now know what it takes to be good. They understand how hard they have to work, and what needs to be done in order for this to be a successful season."

Among the things that need to get done in order for Juniata to improve is to raise the overall consistency of the offense. The coaches also point to an improvement in interior defense and rebounding as critical factors for the success of the season. There is also the concern about finding enough playing time and offensive opportunities on a team with this many players back in the fold. But Curley is confident that his team won't allow those sorts of issues to undermine its goals.

"I think the greatest strength this group has is that they are committed to this team, and to winning," Curley said. "We've never had a problem with guys accepting their roles or being willing to sacrifice for the team. They just care about winning. This season should be the time when their natural maturation helps us develop into a stronger team. If we can stay healthy and continue to work hard, we've got a great chance to have a memorable season. "


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