By Matt Nestor
An experienced group of players left the Auburn Knights after last season. It was a highly successful group that had won more than 20 games in back-to-back seasons.
So, it would be easy for everyone to brush this year’s team off to the side. A group of unknowns trying to play up to a level the previous group had established.
But for senior J.D. Danforth, junior Anthony Strickland and sophomore Fred Van Vleet, they are more than happy to show people why the Auburn program has no plans on falling off anytime soon. The Knights are off to an 11-6 start, 6-2 in the NIC-10 conference, and Danforth is leading the league in scoring.
“I’m pretty excited that we’ve gotten off to a good start,” Danforth said. “There was a lot of people that doubted us, because we had a lot of seniors last year. When they all left, everyone thought we didn’t have anybody left. So it feels good proving a lot of people wrong.”
The confidence comes from a productive summer that Head Coach Bryan Ott has cited all season as a key to how this young team has gotten ready for the season. Van Vleet said the hard work they put in gave them a head start to the season.
“The summer works help,” Van Vleet said. “You come into the season already knowing the plays and knowing what coach wants out of you. So you’re ready without having to restart everything and start fresh.”
While this team lacks the experience some of the past teams had, this is still a talented group. In addition to the three stars, Taivious Ford, Chris Kimbrough and the rest of the young Knights are a talented group.
While Danforth and Strickland carry the scoring load a lot, and Van Vleet runs the team from the point guard position, everyone chips in. And that helps the threesome keep from feeling overworked.
“It’s a lot better knowing you have other players that are equally talented,” Danforth said. “It takes a lot of pressure off.”
Strickland quickly added that having such talented teammates makes it easy to play hard even when things aren’t going great for any one player.
“It’s nice having confidence in the other players when you’re having an off day,” he said. “We work hard every day in practice, learning new things, working as a team. We play hard and we play with heart.”
Danforth also said this is a tight-knit team. He thinks that what this team lacks in game experience, it more than makes up for in camaraderie.
“We just go out and play, we’ve been playing with each other for a long time,” he said. “We know all our little mannerisms and everything about each other.”
With a lot of season left, and much of the toughest conference games left to play, it remains to be seen where Auburn can finish. They have lost at Boylan and Jefferson, but have defeated Hononegah, and still get rematches with the Titans and J-Hawks at home.
But Van Vleet said they look forward to those challenges, as well as a tough non-conference schedule that included a recent close loss to the top-ranked team in the state.
“We’re not scared to play anybody,” he said. “So these games give us a good chance to measure ourselves and see where we are at.”
More than anything, a strong finish is important to the one leftover from the past success, Danforth. He has worked hard to improve his game while he chipped in to some very talented teams in the past, and hopes he can end his senior season on a high note.
“It means a lot to me, knowing that my time has come,” he said. “To come out here, step up and lead my team, means a lot.”
From the Jan. 27-Feb 2, 2010