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Crutchfield, West Lib Reloaded for Title Run

By SHAWN RINE

WEST LIBERTY — Goals? Jim Crutchfield doesn’t have many. He enters each game wanting to score not a specific number of points, but simply one more than the opposition that night.

The way he sees it, that has worked out pretty well in the past. After all, Crutchfield is a two-time NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year who has a career record of 334-57, including seven NCAA bids, three Final Fours, a national runnerup finish, seven league championships and five regional crowns.

”I have tried to really set them the same every year. It’s about style of play,” Crutchfield said. ”I’ve really always tried to put a style out there that is a little different, that when fans walks away they say our teams play hard, smart, tough basketball.

”The only goals as far as success — never wins and losses and championships — but when the conference championship comes around, I want us to have a chance to win it.”

Forget conference titles, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) poll had the Hilltoppers enlisted as the No. 1 team in the country during the preseason. It’s the seventh straight season WLU has been bestowed that honor, and its 44 weeks at the top are by far the most in the country during that span.

”They see those things immediately. I can’t keep them from seeing it and I brought it up this past year,” Crutchfield said of his players. ”For the first time I felt it was affecting us in a negative way. We were ranked No. 1 and they took it for granted.

”I’m glad for them, but it doesn’t make things easy.”

West Liberty lost a pair of successful, valuable seniors in two-time National Player of the Year Seger Bonifant — the school’s all-time leading scorer — as well as Mr. Intangible, Mike Lamberti. Crutfchfield said, in short, that you don’t replace those guys.

”I have never tried to put a player similar to them in that role, because you know you are going to be disappointed. Something else will be their strong suit,” Crutchfield said. ”Seger, you could go crazy thinking you are going to put someone in that role.

”And Lamberti was a winner his entire basketball career. You look at our games and he was always the guy to come up with big plays at the end to win the game.”

But it’s not as though the cupboard is bare. Far from it, actually.

It starts with Mountain East Conference Freshman of the Year David Dennis Jr. A whiz with the ball in his hands, Dennis can get to the rim just about any time he wants to.

”He never stops working as a guy who understands team basketball,” Crutchfield said. ”He has a coach’s mentality.

”He understands the game as well as any player I have had.”

Senior guard Devin Hoehn is finally healthy after battling injuries most of last season. He’s a deadly shooter from the 3-point line who recently moved into 25th place on the school’s scoring list.

”I felt sorry for Devin when he was fighting injury. Trying to get back to where he was, which is not a great way to get to get healthy,” Crutchfield said. ”He wants to be at a higher level.

”He has looked good.”

Zac Grossenbacher returns for his senior season and is already averaging a double-double through three games. But Crutchfield loves his development on the other end.

”Zac has evolved as a defender,” the coach said. ”He came in as a big guy (6-foot-8) who could shoot the 3.”

Those three had starting spots locked down in the preseason, but the rest is going to be fluid for a while.

Crutchfield believed Purdue transfer Dan Monteroso would be rusty coming out of football season and having not played competitive basketball for four years. But he started out with back-to-back double-figure games.

”Then you look at guys who are going to put in starters minutes. Zak Kirkbride has been around and he is playing with more confidence,” Crutchfield said. ”Eric Meininger, along with Zak, we’re banking on them playing bigger.

”Brady Arnold is going to play and contribute a lot and he’s going to score.”

A freshman ”who is flirting with starting,” according to the coach, is Clay Guillozet. He averaged 11.5 points and 3.5 rebounds as the Hilltoppers roared to a pair of victories in their own tournament.

James Griffin, a Marist transfer, and Brandon Smith, who is coming off a horrific injury, are also going to contribute, as is Tyler Primmer. Dalton Bolon, Luke Dyer and Evan French (medical) are redshirting.

Nov. 26: Le Moyne 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 30: Shepherd 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 4: at Fairmont 4 p.m.

Dec. 13: at Nova SE 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 18: Clarion 4 p.m.

Jan. 3: at W.Va. State 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 5: Charleston 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 8: at Glenville 4 p.m.

Jan. 10: at W.Va. Wesleyan 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 14: UVa.-Wise 4 p.m.

Jan. 16: Concord 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 19: Wheeling Jesuit 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 21: at Notre Dame 4 p.m.

Jan. 26: at Charleston 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 28: W.Va. State 4 p.m.

Feb. 1: at Shepherd 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 4: Fairmont 4 p.m.

Feb. 9: at Concord 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 11: at UVa.-Wise 4 p.m.

Feb. 16: W.Va. Wesleyan 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 18: Glenville 4 p.m.

Feb. 23: at Urbana 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 25: at Wheeling Jesuit 4 p.m.

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