“We’ve got some kids coming back from last year; we got a lot of good experience off of a really tough year last year,” Lamar said. “We’ve got two freshman, Gabriel Jordan and Hudson Welty, that got to play a lot last year and now they’re sophomores, which makes them better. We’ve got a third team All-Conference player Justin Randall coming back, and of course Nick Syrie, who is returning from the ACL. That makes us a much better team. And then we’ve really plugged in some nice pieces around them. Jonas Page will be a good shooting guard for us. We have some other guys that should be eligible by January. Of course you’ve got to mention Jordan Whelan who came on like crazy last year, he will be a senior, at the end of the year last year he was averaging over double digits for us.”

Lamar said if Syrie had not been injured before last year’s sub-.500 season, the Pioneers would have been contenders for a postseason run.

“I think that if we would have had Nick last year, we would have made the national tournament,” Lamar said. “I think he is that good. He’s been picked already as a preseason second-team All-American in the NAIA and I feel like he is a premiere (if not the best) point guard in the country. We’ve won over 25 games every year that he has played. I feel like Nick will be a great leader and already is being a great leader.”

No. 5 Nick Syrie leans in for a layup against Texas Wesleyan defenders on Nov. 6. Photo by Jim Smith.No. 5 Nick Syrie leans in for a layup against Texas Wesleyan defenders on Nov. 6. Photo by Jim Smith.

Senior guard Jordan Whelan agreed that having Syrie back will make a big difference in how this season plays out.

“Nick definitely brings a lot to the team,” Whelan said. “When he has the ball, he looks after it, he values it. He doesn’t turn the ball over, and that is something that we did last year. He brings structure to the team.”

Whelan said that he thinks the Pioneers will do well in conference play because of their height and athleticism.

“This is the most athletic team I’ve been on in the three years that I have been here. We’re tall as well. We have a 6-foot-11 guy, Justin Jamison, and Marshawn is another big athletic player. Alexander Zivkovic another 6-foot-11 player, Justin Randall is 6-foot-9. I think we are going to be the biggest team in conference and maybe the most athletic.”

Sophomore guard Gabriel Jordan said that having a deep roster will also help the team this year.

“I think we have a lot of players that do a lot of different things well,” Jordan said. “So that helps a lot because if one is not doing so well in one game, we have a whole lot of other guys who can step in.”

Whelan said this year’s team is more focused and settled in than they were last season when the team was still shuffling to fill holes in the lineup. 

 Jordan Whelan shoots to score two points against Ozark Christian College on Nov. 5, 2015. Photo by Jim Smith. Jordan Whelan shoots to score two points against Ozark Christian College on Nov. 5, 2015. Photo by Jim Smith.

“This time last year we had just lost Nick so we were all over the place,” Whelan said. “People were being moved around positions all throughout conference last year, now this year is different. We are set. We know who is who, what each player brings to the team. This year we’re a lot more prepared, ready to go into things whereas last year we were still trying to figure things out early on.”

With more experienced young players, new additions to the team and the return of Syrie, Lamar sees a high ceiling for this year’s squad.

“Number one we have Nick back,” Lamar said. “And Jonas will be another nice addition to that team and with the experience we have returning, and then at semester if we pick up two more guys, we could be every bit as good as anyone I have ever had here.”