Basketball X-Men focused on capturing AUS banner

Basketball X-Men focused on capturing AUS banner

Depth, versatility will be key ingredients for White and Blue

By Corey LeBlanc

The STFX X-Men are ready to shoot for an Atlantic University Sport (AUS) basketball banner – the first for the storied program since completing a championship three-peat in 2006.

"That has been our focus since day one," second-year head coach Tyrell Vernon says.

He adds that the White and Blue "feel good" about where they are, as they continue training camp and prepare to tip-off their pre-season schedule.

"Guys did what they were supposed to do over the summer," Vernon informs, noting that his group of student-athletes is in "better shape" than they were at this time last year.

Complimenting the returning players this season will be a strong set of newcomers that he says have "picked up very quickly" on what they X-Men want to do on the court.

"With the talent that we have, it is going to be more about sacrifice," Vernon explains, including the importance of players being willing to "play their role."

Although the X-Men will be without graduating guard Justin Andrew – a perennial AUS all-star – the list of returnees is strong one, including second-year X-Men forward David Muenkat (Brampton, ON), who showed flashes of dominance in his first conference campaign.

Vernon expects "big things" from the experienced and talented guard tandem of Avan Nava (Mississauga, ON) and Antoine Vernon (Hamilton, ON).

"They are going to be the leaders for us, which is going to be very important," he says.

Noting that he had a "great summer," Vernon expects Dondre Reddick (Antigonish, NS) to continue to build on his breakout sophomore campaign.

"All of our guys have gotten better," he says of his returnees, a list that includes sophomores Gatluak James (Windsor, ON), Matt Pennell (St. John's, NL) and Bennett Grumbach (Toronto, ON).

Vernon expects that trio, in particular, to be "good for us," with an increased opportunity to get on the court.

Amongst the new faces on the STFX roster is Deon Ejim (Brampton, ON) – a 6'6", 245-pound forward – who will team up with Muenkat on the interior.

"He is a great kid," Vernon – who coached him at TFC – says.

After a couple of NCAA stops at University of Illinois at Chicago and Lewis University, he decided to return north of the border to continue his university experience.

Vernon adds Ejim, whose brother – Melvin – is a member of Canada's national men's basketball team, is "going to be huge for us."

The X head coach praises his ability to pass, shoot and dribble. "Deon also gives us another big body," Vernon says, which will help the team in a variety of areas, including rebounding – on both ends.

Describing him as "long and strong," he adds that Ejim has "gotten better every day" since his arrival on the Antigonish campus.

Steven Levnaic (Stoney Creek, ON) – a 6'3" guard – arrives from the NCAA's Niagara University.

Although he was "undecided" late in the off-season, Vernon explains that Levnaic is quickly "getting into shape," as part of returning to top form for his first campaign in White and Blue.

"We are just starting to see how good Steven is," he adds.

Keyonte Beals (North Preston, NS) – a true freshman – wrapped up his high school career with highly-regarded Orangeville Prep. "He can play multiple positions," Vernon says of the lefty, one with a "high motor."

He adds that Beals is dangerous "with or without the ball."

Vernon describes another freshman newcomer – Kye Kotapski-Tinga (Comox, BC), a 6'4" guard – as a "real surprise."

"He is in tremendous shape," he says, describing Kotapski-Tinga as "great athlete," one he expects to make an immediate contribution to the White and Blue line-up.

When asked if roster depth is one of the key ingredients to success, Vernon says, "Definitely, it is going to be an asset."

As the X-Men prepare for a competitive AUS regular season, the head coach explains that the "next step" is finding out how his student-athletes will "react when the lights turn on."

Describing hitting the court for conference play as a "whole experience" – the crowds, noise and travel, just to name a few elements – Vernon notes that they will find out "who is ready to perform."

Vernon remembers last year – as the season went on – the X-Men's depth may have waned as other elements, challenges that come with being a student-athlete, took hold. He stresses how crucial it is to be able to juggle everything involved.

He says he is "confident" that 10 players will be ready to perform each night.

When the X-Men are at their best, Vernon explains they will be "doing a better job at finishing off possessions," particularly defensively.

On that end of the floor, he says the White and Blue are targeting holding opponents below 70 points per game, which Vernon adds would be a top-5 performance at the U SPORTS' level.

Noting the strength of their transition game, Vernon offers that they will be "exciting to watch."

Creating line-ups – and ensuring players get their opportunities – he describes as "our challenge" for the X-Men coaching staff.

"We don't talk about it," Vernon says, when asked how the X-Men will be influenced by knowing that they are hosting the 2023 U SPORTS national championship tournament in Halifax in March.

He reiterated that capturing an AUS banner is their top priority.

"We want to earn it," Vernon offers of entering nationals as conference champions, even though they already have spot in the tournament.

He adds, "It is important to us to be able to come in with that momentum [being AUS champions]."

Vernon predicts that White and Blue fans will like what they see on the court this season.

"We are really excited about this group," he says.