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When two key members of the Lakeland College men's basketball team both went down with injuries early in the season, some people may have thought that all hope for a promising 2007-08 campaign was lost.
They were wrong.
Without senior Shane Grube, who broke his hand in the November 28 game against Edgewood College, the Muskies (10-4 overall) lost just one game. Even when senior Danny Ehnert went down in practice in mid-December with a knee injury, which was originally feared to be a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear but proved to be a bruised knee bone, the squad still continued to put notches in the win column.
Grube played with his injury for much of the Muskies' game against Edgewood, helping the team record its first win of the season after a rocky 0-3 start.
"We still didn't have our first win, so all that really mattered was getting that first win," Grube explained. "It didn't really bother me too much during the game, only certain movements did. After the game, once all the adrenaline wore off, it started hurting and swelled up. It was great to get the win that night, but it was a little bittersweet."
Grube finished that game with 16 points, went a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line and grabbed seven rebounds to help the Muskies to a 70-57 victory over the Eagles.
"When Shane got hurt he finished the game," said Lakeland head coach Kyle Brumett. "We didn't really know his hand was broken, and we thought he was going to be OK. That might have been his career high at the time, and he made free throws down the stretch with a broken hand."
That win seemed to spark the Muskies into action, as Lakeland has now put together a head-turning eight-game win streak since early December, including three decisive wins since Grube and Ehnert both returned to the court on Jan. 4 against Northland College. The Muskies are currently second in the NAC with a 6-1 record just behind 7-0 Aurora University.
"If you would have told me that I was going to lose two guys who are very experienced and plug in four or five guys that have no experience and we were going to win eight games in a row, I probably would have told you you were crazy," Brumett said. "We were hoping to stay afloat and win games at home, but this says a lot about the character of our group, and also about the three seniors that were still able to play during that time."
Those three seniors, guards Kris Saiberlich and Aaron Regal and forward David Hoerres, joined forces with junior forward Peter Worth, sophomore guard Phil Sontag and an assortment of talented newcomers to get the job done on the court.
Saiberlich, a three-time all-conference player, and Regal, an honorable mention all-NAC selection last season, have both consistently led the team on offense all season with 18.2 and 13.5 points per game, respectively.
"We're relying a lot more on our perimeter scoring than our inside scoring this year compared to last year, and Kris and Aaron have been phenomenal," Brumett said. "They know it's their senior year and have spent a lot of time in the gym. They don't take a day off, they don't take a practice off and they don't take a possession off."
Count Grube and Ehnert among the least surprised by that.
"We have a lot of capable players on our team," said Grube, who was hoping to miss only two weeks, but was sidelined for four. "We're really deep even though we're young, but everyone plays their hardest when they're in there. It made it a lot easier sitting out knowing that we were still doing well."
"A lot of players stepped up for us," Ehnert said. "It's crazy to see how all of the freshmen have stepped up for us, and all of our other seniors have also played really well. It's nice to see how people have picked up their roles and helped us keep winning. They started our win streak."
In spite of Saiberlich and Regal and their consistent offensive presence, Brumett still had concerns, considering Ehnert and Grube make up about 32 percent of the Muskies' rebounding force, led by Ehnert with 8.3 rebounds per game, good for third-best in the NAC.
"They are two guys who have played significant minutes," Brumett said. "Danny has been a starter for four years and Shane has probably played the best he has in his career this year. When we lost those guys we were definitely concerned. I told the guys that you never know when it's going to be your turn to contribute, and it threw a few guys that had very little experience into the games. They didn't really have time to think about it or have a choice, they just had to perform. Those guys haven't put up glaring numbers, but guys like Trevor McKown have filled the hole with good defense and smart play. Phil Sontag picked up some minutes, and he is one of our better defenders. Guys like Chris Quinn, Trevor and Jay Freerking, who probably went into the season thinking they were going to be playing more JV games than varsity games, have jumped right in and done things that have helped us win games."
McKown, a freshman forward, and Sontag have stepped into starting roles since the injuries and have been contributing valuable minutes and points, while Quinn and Freerking have both shown their ability to come in off the bench and make key plays.
And now, Grube and Ehnert have returned with a vengeance. In this past Saturday's 91-84 win over Concordia Chicago, Grube tallied a career-high 26 points, shot 50 percent from the field and from 3-point range and knocked down all nine of his free throw attempts. Ehnert also stood out, as he pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds paired with 15 points while shooting 70 percent from the floor. Those numbers have not been limited to that single game, as both have been meeting or exceeding their season averages since returning.
"They are doing more than I expected them to do," Brumett admitted. "But it seems to me that the longer you are out, the smarter you get. It seemed like an awful long time that Danny and Shane were sitting next to me at games rather than playing, and I could feel them pick up on mistakes that they were making. Shane is a really good offensive player, but he has struggled defensively at times throughout his career. I think sitting and watching may have helped him see some of the things he can do better defensively. Also, I think it was just killing Danny to sit there and watch when we would give up rebounds because that's what he typically brings. We can win a lot of games when Danny is the leading rebounder in the game. He has to be the best rebounder on the floor for us regardless of who we play."
Grube has also been a bit stunned by what he has been able to achieve on the court.
"I wanted to play well after being out so long, but I wasn't really sure how I'd be after not being able to handle a ball or do anything with my right hand," Grube said. "I just wanted to play as hard as I could. I've been a little surprised at how I've been shooting since I have had to wear something on my hand to protect it, but I'm actually shooting the ball better from outside than I was before."
Ehnert has also exceeded his own expectations after thinking he may have blown a solid senior season.
"At first I didn't really think much of it because I didn't think it was all that serious," Ehnert said. "But a couple days after that I was kind of scared about it and wasn't sure if I was going to play again. The first few days back I was kind of shaky on it, but I have been surprised with how I have played on my knee since it has been better."
Brumett also feared he had lost his leading rebounder for the season.
"When Danny went down, my gut feeling was that he was done for the year," Brumett said. "When you see a knee injury it's hard not to think the worst, but we got lucky with that one.
"Both of them have been great since they returned. I don't think anyone has as many experienced seniors as we do, so we're just trying to take advantage of that and build off it."
The Muskies are focused on their next NAC opponent, Concordia University, Wis., on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m. Although the Muskies handily defeated the Falcons without Grube earlier in the season, 96-81, the squad recognizes that they cannot afford to overlook any game.
"This is the first time for me as a head coach to have won eight in a row, but every time you win another one in a row, the pressure builds," Brumett said. "Eight in a row doesn't really mean anything unless you win your next one. We have two more home games until we go back out on the road, and we need and expect to win our home games. If you look at the history of the NAC, you have to win your home games in order to compete."
The Muskies are also grateful that Saturday's home date with Wisconsin Lutheran is their only meeting this season, and while Lakeland has its share of tough NAC road dates remaining, optimism is running high.
"Our major goal is to win a conference championship, and we would really like to keep our win streak going," Ehnert said. "We have a chance at winning basically all of our conference games."
"We expect to win every time we step on the floor," Brumett said. "Most coaches say that, but I think these guys really believe it."