Just three years ago, the Cardinal Stritch Cardinals struggled through a 2-19 season, a move that prompted the school to bring in head coach Dave Rieker.
In just two years at the helm, Rieker has helped turn the program around as their win totals have risen to six and nine in 2011 and '12, respectively, an obvious sign that Stritch is headed in the right direction.
But now, with the help of star guard Austin Adams, Rieker is looking to elevate the Cardinals further, possibly among the elite of the Toledo Area Athletic Conference. Thus far, Stritch, 4-5 overall and 2-2 in the TAAC, has shown signs that it is capable of taking that next step.
Adams, a 6-foot, 3-inch sophomore who averages 24.2 points, easily among the best in the area, credits Rieker with helping him improve his defense and instill confidence within his teammates.
“(Coach Rieker) is the old-fashioned type of coach — you have to go out and play some defense,” Adams said. “I know that one of my weaknesses is my defense. He's always pushed me. There are no words to describe what he does (and) the energy in him to make our team better is incredible. He's a great coach, he knows the game and he played for UT when they were ranked (in the 1970s). Things should be going more smoothly for us right now, but I'm sure they'll play out in the end.”
Adams is eluding to the fact that Rieker, who graduated from Findlay High School, played on some fine University of Toledo basketball teams in the mid-to-late '70s under former head coach Bob Nichols (1965-87).
The team's 4-5 record is a bit deceiving, however, considering that the Cardinals' five losses have come against quality teams like Toledo Christian, Otsego and St. Joseph CC, whose combined record is 40-9 (.816). And things don't get much easier as five of the Cardinals' next seven opponents sport a combined 38-11 (.776) record. The hope is that, with playing such a grueling schedule, the Cardinals will be stronger and better prepared to make a late-season run in the tournament. It's a testament to both the non-conference schedule Rieker put together and the fact that Stritch plays in the TAAC, one of Ohio's best basketball conferences.
“If you look at teams like Michigan St. or Indiana, they are usually 3-3 or 4-2 in the beginning and then they're 20-5 (at the end of the season),” Rieker said. “Those coaches know it's a long season. They try to prepare you to be the best at the right time.”
Three of the five Cardinal losses have come in games in which they led in the fourth quarter and, in their 62-45 loss to Toledo Christian, Stritch held a six-point lead in the third quarter before things fell apart.
“We're in every game now, and we're going to continue to be,” said Rieker. “We tend to lose (close games). We just need to learn how to finish.”
Despite the fact that Adams' play has been instrumental in helping the Cardinals notch four victories, he hasn't done it alone and has gotten plenty of help from his teammates, especially Joey Cousino and Robbie Bekier.
The starting lineup features Joel McVicker (5-6) at the point, Jacob Empie (5-10) at shooting guard and Cousino (6-2) at small forward with Adams at power forward and Bekier (6-3) manning the post at center. The bench, meanwhile, is comprised a versatile group of players in guards Brooks Gasser (6-2) and forwards Cody Clayton (6-2), Travis Rodriguez (6-3), Carl Zacharias (6-3) and Joe Sinay (6-2).
Adams, who also leads the team in rebounding with 7.3 per contest, is shooting a remarkable 65 percent from the floor and 64 percent from the free-throw line. Cousino, meanwhile, is second on the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 12.8 points and 3.8 rebounds, respectively, and Bekier is contributing as well, averaging 7.7 points and 3.4 rebounds.
Rieker speaks highly of the group, which he believes is close to reaching the next level.
“I have a great player and nine other players that are pretty good,” Rieker said, noting that this group has some of the best chemistry of any group he's coached. “We don't care who scores on this team — I've had three guys, seven guys and nine guys in the scoring column (in different games). We have a very unselfish group of kids. I have a lot of weapons and if they understand their roles, they can put it together. We have the ingredients, but can we stir them together and make a great product? That's my job.”
Only Adams, Bekier and Cousino saw significant time on the varsity last season, meaning the younger players have had some growing up to do.
“That's the hardest thing to teach the kids, (how to win),” Rieker said. “You can't play 'not to lose.' You can't be scared, you've got to want the ball. We tell them to respect greatness, don't be shocked by greatness. When Austin dunks, we expect that.
“It's about having confidence and expecting to succeed. Toledo Christian and Ottawa Hills expect to succeed. I told (the kids) the other night when we played Otsego that we got the lead because we played as five, and we lost the lead because we played as (individuals). They just need to experience these things so they can correct it (later). The longer you play the more experience you gain.”