FAIRMONT — An eighth straight 20-win season ended in abrupt fashion. A charge to 15-plus conference wins for the seventh time in the past eight years was spoiled in an instant.
It was a cruel conclusion for Fairmont State men’s basketball in 2019-20, as the Falcons continued their storied history but watched their season crumble just before the start of their NCAA Division II Tournament game against Shippensburg due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were in the last practice of the day at IUP at 4 p.m. and we went through our regular routine with shooting and a little defensive segment, and at 4:37 p.m. — I’ll never forget it — they walked out on the court and shut it down,” said Fairmont State second-year coach Tim Koenig on Tuesday on his weekly radio show. “The season was over.”
Fairmont State finished the season 23-7 overall and 16-6 in conference play and received an at-large NCAA Division II Tournament bid, its sixth NCAA Tournament berth in the past eight seasons, all in Koenig’s debut season as head coach after he replaced the departed Joe Mazzulla.
Now, 10 long months after the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Falcons, they’re primed to return to the court, as they’ll tip off what projects to be another promising season today at 7:30 p.m. at West Virginia Wesleyan. Tonight’s game will be the first of a 16-game, conference-only regular season schedule for Fairmont State before the MEC Tournament slated for March 3-7 in Wheeling.
Over the course of that 16-game schedule and the next two months, speed bumps and sharp turns are bound to arise from COVID-19 within both the MEC and the NCAA Division II landscape as a whole. As it stands now, the MEC — which requires weekly COVID-19 testing from each of its 12 member schools — has designated Wednesday and Saturday as each week’s game days, with the exception of this opening week. Mondays, meanwhile, will serve as a makeup day each week for postponed games, and teams can also schedule games on the fly, Koenig said, if both have opponents cancel due to COVID-19. All told, teams will have to play at least 11 games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, according to Koenig.
“Our guys’ attitudes through this has been great,” Koenig said. “It’s been unfortunate and it’s been difficult, but to try to do the best they can with the best mindset possible, it’s easier said than done. I’m proud of our guys.”
Fairmont State, which enters the season second in the MEC Preseason Poll and No. 23 in the most recent NABC poll, will bring back four of its five starters from last year in senior guard Cole VonHandorf, sophomore guard Dale Bonner and forwards Isaiah Sanders and Przemyslaw Golek. The lone starter not back is wing Kenzie Melko-Marshall, who suffered a season-ending injury in an unjust end to a fabulous college career at Fairmont State.
“It’s a blow,” Koenig said of Melko-Marshall, who was a defensive menace and ranked second on Fairmont State in minutes and third in scoring in 2019-20. “He’s had a great career here on and off the court, and we’re very grateful for everything he’s done.”
Alongside the quartet of VonHandorf, Bonner, Sanders and Golek, the Falcons made a couple of big splashes via the offseason talent pool, adding a pair of Division I transfers in homegrown star guard Zyon Dobbs from James Madison as well as guard Brendan Paul from Syracuse. Koenig also has brought in seven freshmen, which includes the late transfers of the Whippen brothers, Chase and Kyle, after each spent the fall semester at California University of Pennsylvania.
“We really think we’ve added to some of our weaknesses,” Koenig said on Tuesday’s radio show. “We’re hoping to have more balance up and down the roster, especially a little more depth off the bench and a little more size.”
The most well-known, and perhaps the most impactful, of those new additions is Dobbs, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore guard who returns to the Friendly City after starring at Fairmont Senior High where he was named all-state first team three times and led the Polar Bears to four state title games in his four years.
“Zyon is going to be a key piece for us,” Koenig said of Dobbs, who will immediately step in as a starter. “He’s all over the court...we don’t really know what position he is and that’s OK; he may be the 1, he may be the 2, he may be the 3, but we said just go out there and take care of the ball, and he’s been shooting it really well, too.”
Dobbs will complement a backcourt in Bonner and VonHandorf that has already proven capable of taking the MEC by storm in the Falcons’ spread, go-go offensive system. Bonner and VonHandorf ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, for the Falcons in scoring last year and the tandem may be due for yet another leap this season.
Bonner, a fluid driver and slasher with big-time athletic pop, has showcased a more potent jumper in preseason, Koenig said on Tuesday’s radio show, and VonHandorf has well established himself as the team’s tough-as-nails leader with a diverse offensive acumen and feisty defensive chops.
“He’s just better,” Koenig said of Bonner, who became the first freshman in league history last season to earn All-MEC first team honors after leading the Falcons with 17.8 points, 5.3 assists, and 2.3 steals a game. “He’s stronger, his jump shot is better, he’s got a better left hand...the two or three things he had to work on, he’s gotten better at.”
“(And) Cole is our leader,” Koenig said of VonHandorf, who also earned All-MEC first team honors last year after averaging 16.3 points a game and canning a team-best 62 3-pointers on a 39 percent clip. “He does everything from (leadership), to obviously filling it up and diving on the floor for loose balls.”
Fairmont State’s other two returning starters in Sanders and Golek project as the Falcons’ top frontcourt duo, with Sanders who can attack from the perimeter and wreak havoc defensively and Golek more so as the typical gruntwork guy of setting screens, mashing the boards and defending the backline of the defense. Both Sanders, a 6-foot-5 junior, and Golek, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, really popped last season in breakout campaigns, but they enter this season with tremendous burdens defensively in trying to patch up a Fairmont State defense that will always be a bit undersized and vulnerable in the rebounding department.
“We have to get stops,” said Koenig after Fairmont State allowed 79.8 points a game last season, a number that still ranked in the middle of the pack in the MEC’s nearly unanimous pace-and-space offensive framework. “Defensively, we just had lapses last year; there was a lot of ‘I played well if I scored,’ so it’s just changing the mindset. We wanted to increase the depth, increase the length, and increase the intensity possession by possession. (Entering the season) we’re really focused on winning the turnover margin, winning the rebounding margin and then smart shot selection (offensively) and knowing what you can and cannot do.”