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Falcons predict winning season

November 6, 2009

Excitement and expectations surround the UW-River Falls men’s basketball team coming into the new season. A year ago, the Falcons finished sixth in the WIAC and they return their entire starting lineup. They will open the 2009-10 season on Nov. 17 at Viterbo.

“In years past, we might have said we had a chance for a conference title, but that was just us trying to stay positive,” junior Brady Hannigan said. “This year, we truly believe we have a shot.”

Last year, the Falcons finished 11- 15 overall and 5-11 in WIAC play. They finished sixth overall and were defeated by Whitewater in the opening round of the WIAC playoffs.

“Anything less than a top-four finish this year would be a major disappointment,” Falcon junior Jake Voeltz said, “but our sights are set at number one.”

Nine members from the 2008-09 WIAC All-Conference team have graduated. Everyone expects the conference’s top teams to reload this season. Four WIAC teams are ranked in the preseason D3Hoops.com Poll: UW-Stevens Point at No. 10, UW-Whitewater at No. 3, UW-Platteville at No. 17 and UW-Oshkosh at No. 24. Head Coach Jeff Berkhof said, “No one really knows what to expect; the conference’s top seven teams could be on a collision course.”

Berkhof will begin his fourth season as Falcons head coach. He is 30-47 overall in his career as head coach, but this marks his 18th year with River Falls. He played with the Falcons from 1992-94. Following that he was former Head Coach Rick Bowen’s top assistant for 12 seasons. Berkhof spent one season as the school’s interim head coach before getting the job for good in 2007.

From last year’s team, the Falcons lost Jesse Elling and Steve Farmer to graduation, and Colin Utke decided not to return for his sophomore year.

A season ago, the Falcons put three players on the WIAC Honorable Mention team: Jontae Koonkaew, Aaron Anderson and Voeltz. All three will be back and will once again be relied on as the team’s key contributors.

Koonkaew averaged 15 points and 4.8 assists per game last year, coming off a knee injury that cost him most of the 2007- 08 season. He led the WIAC in assists and Berkhof believed that Koonkaew should have been on First Team All-Conference. “He makes us go,” Berkhof said. “When his play is better, our team is better.”

Voeltz got his first real chance to play as a Falcon last year, and he made the most of it. He averaged 11.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, and led the team with 59 offensive rebounds. When asked about his personal expectations, Voeltz put the team ahead of his own accomplishments.

“[I am going to] do all the little things to help this team be successful,” Voeltz said.

Anderson made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2008-09. He led the team in field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Anderson hit 44-88 from behind the arc, while averaging 8.8 points per game.

Other key returners for the Falcons include Wade Guerin, Spencer Shelman, Danny Johnson and Hannigan.

Guerin and Hannigan combined with Anderson, Koonkaew and Voeltz to make the majority of the starts last season. Guerin was third on the team in scoring with 9.3 points per game. He was also the team’s leading rebounder, grabbing over six rebounds per game.

Hannigan will begin his third season as a Falcon. Last year, he averaged just over six points a game. A lot of what Hannigan does on the court doesn’t show up in the box score. He is the team’s number one defender and saves multiple possessions a game on pure hustle. Under Hannigan’s personal goals this season he lists: “to be a great defender.”

“Brady has been our hardest worker in the offseason,” Berkhof commented.

Shelman and Johnson will continue to be key role players for the Falcons. Shelman is the team’s only senior coming into the season. Last year, his first with the Falcons, he averaged about four points a game. Shelman played in all 26 games and had the lowest amount of turnovers amongst the players that played in all the games.

Johnson also played in all 26 games. He shot 43 percent from the field and from the three-point line. Johnson said his goal this year is to shoot over 50 percent from behind the arc. He was also second on the team in assists.

D.J. Reese will return this season after missing the last year and a half. Reese got off to a good start in 2007-08 before being ruled ineligible due to academics after the semester break. Reese will provide point guard depth, which will allow Johnson to play his more natural position of two-guard.

The Falcons also bring in a solid recruiting class that will need to provide depth on the front line.

Along with the season opener, the Falcons are looking forward to their first home game. They will take on the No. 4 team in the country Nov. 24th, the St. Thomas Tommies.

“It will be our toughest test of the season,” Guerin said. “It will show us where we are at.”

It will be a tough road for the Falcons, but they seem ready to take the challenges head on.

“Last year, we took one step up the ladder,” Berkhof said. “Now, we must take that next step.