Teams trying to defend the Edwardsville Tigers basketball team are going to have some tough choices this season.
Swarm massive senior A.J. Epenesa inside and risk being burned by senior guard Mark Smith’s moves to the hoop and scoring, or by the deadly 3-point shooting of senior guard Oliver Stephen. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Epenesa, an Iowa football recruit, has more help inside in 6-7 senior Caleb Strohmeier.
“Our guys do a really good job of taking what the defense gives and trying to get a good shot,” said veteran Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo, just two wins away from 600 with the Tigers (598-204) and 21 wins away from 700 in his career (679-255 in 33 seasons overall).
“The defense usually has to give you something. If you take what the defense gives you, you’re going to get a good shot at the basket every time. Our guys play to win and I don’t think who shoots matters or who scores matters. They like each other and they like to play.”
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The Tigers return four starters and five players that saw significant action last season when they finished 25-5 and lost to Alton in the sectional semifinal. Epenesa, Smith and Stephen are in their third year as starters. Edwardsville opens the season at 8 p.m.. Monday against Waterloo at the Highland Thanksgiving Tournament.
Epenesa averaged 16.8 points, 13.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 2015-16 while hitting 70 percent of his shots.
The defense usually has to give you something. If you take what the defense gives you, you’re going to get a good shot at the basket every time.
Edwardsville coach Mike Waldo
“The low post is one of the most challenging positions in sports,” Waldo said. “It takes a lot of different skills You’ve got to work hard to get open, then once you’ve get the ball you’ve got to make the right decision, then have the right footwork to make the right move at the right time. A.J. has worked really hard to make himself a good player.”
Epenesa will miss time while playing in two major football all-star games, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7, 2017 in Texas and the inaugural Polynesian Bowl Jan. 21, 2017 in Hawaii.
“He’s going to have a busy winter,” Waldo said. “He’s going to get a late start because of football and he’s got two all-star games, but that’s OK. He’s worked hard for that, too.”
Smith is a 6-5 senior guard who averaged 14.1 points, 8.4 assists and 7.3 rebounds while hitting 29 3-pointers last season. He has Division I offers from Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Indiana State, Wright State, Elon and Oral Roberts and has taken official visits to SIUE, Wright State and NIU.
“Mark had a really good year for us in getting us in the offense and making the right pass and the right play,” Waldo said. “He has improved in a lot of ways. He’s physically better; he’s faster, he jumps better and he’s stronger.”
2 The number of wins coach Mike Waldo needs to reach 600 with Edwardsville
21 The number of wins coach Mike Waldo needs to reach 700 in his career (679-255 in 33 seasons overall)
Stephen, who has Division II offers from Illinois-Springfield and Maryville along with some Division I interest, buried 98 3-pointers last season while averaging 14.4 points, five rebounds and three assists. His passing and play-making have improved.
“Oliver is an excellent shooter, but he does a lot of things well,” Waldo said. “He’s really a good defender and is also a good passer. He’s an excellent screener and really a smart guy.”
The 6-7 Strohmeier averaged 6.6 points and four rebounds last season while 5-10 junior Jack Marinko, the younger brother of former Tigers’ football star Dan Marinko, will be the fifth starter.
“He’s a much better shooter and he’s bigger and stronger,” Waldo said of Strohmeier. “I think he’ll fill a lot of the same roles for us, but he’s a much improved player.”
Seniors Nathan Kolesa, Jackson Best and Zach Doornink are also in the mix. Best has worked his way into the rotation after not being a junior varsity starter last season.
Even with all that returning talent and experience, Waldo knows the metro-east basketball scene is full of talented teams.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the area this strong in basketball,” Waldo said. “We have a lot of experience back and I like my guys, but everybody’s going to be good this year. We know it’s going to be very competitive.
“There’s a lot of good players in the league and of course you’ve got Althoff added to 4A this year, too.”
600, 700. Mike Waldo is just two wins away from 600 with the Tigers (598-204) and 21 wins away from 700 in his career (679-255 in 33 seasons overall).