When asked if his team is going to be competitive during the 2000-01 span, Slippery Rock helmsman Chris Burtch had a simple reply.
"Yeah, with Ben Zajac we'd better be, or else I'll be selling The Garden Weasel at Wal-Mart," he quipped.
Slippery Rock is back and this year's headliner, without a doubt, is the extremely talented 6-7 senior forward Ben Zajac.
Zajac enters his final year at the Rock with 1,310 points, putting him on pass to surpass the MCAC's and Herald coverage area record-holder in Sharpsville's Brian Brush (1,982 points). Counting only a 24-game regular season schedule, however, it won't be that easy as Zajac will have to average slightly more than 28 points per game to pass Brush.
"I know Ben, and if you were interviewing him and you wanted to talk about numbers, the only numbers he'd want to talk about would be 'Ws', and that's the way we're going into it," said Burtch.
Last year, Zajac racked up 539 points (23.1 ppg), second in the area behind only Kennedy Christian's John Reimold, the PIAA's Player of the Year (657).
"Ben had a great season last year, especially the last two-thirds of the season," Burtch said. "And what he's done is he's made himself into much more of a cerebral player. There were times last year and particularly the year before when he was a sophomore that he would, kind of, take himself out of the game mentally. But he's become a smarter player, a more mature player. We're going to rely on him for a lot of things."
"Zajac is unquestionably our team's leader," he continued. "He leads by example. I know that statement is overused but he really does. Here's a guy, he's got 1,300-some points leading into his senior year, and he doesn't relax or dog it for one second in practice. Not when it's live, not when we're doing something. He leads by example."
The Rockets, finished last season with a 13-12 record, missing the District 10 playoffs by a mere three markers via a 43-40 loss to Grove City in a MCAC tiebreaker.
"Basically last year, not only was it mine and (Bob Book's, Burtch's assistant) first year coaching at that level, it was everyone's, except Ben Zajac's, first year as a player at that level," said Burtch. "In other words, our seniors were jayvee guys the year before. We went through some tough things. We developed a little bit of character and finished real strong."
That strong finish included victories in 12 of the last 18 contests and Burtch hopes that success will carry over to 2000-01. However, It won't be a cake walk in the always tight AAA race.
"It's going to be like last year," said Burtch. "Last year was insane. Sharon went 4-2, us and Grove City went 3-3, Hickory went 2-4. You can't get much closer than that. I think it will be a pretty wild year."
Aiding the Rockets will be 6-2 senior letterwinner Dustin Hufnagel, 5-8 junior Zack Sarver, 6-2 junior Andrew Raisley and 6-1 junior Luke McCaffery.
Missing from this year's roster is 6-7 junior Braden Campbell. Campbell suffered a broken wrist while playing for Slippery Rock's football team and is expecting surgery sometime in December.
"I told him, 'I'll see you in May'," said Burtch.
Also looking to contribute to the cause is 5-9 senior Ryan Benton and 6-2 Jason Lee.
"(Benton) doesn't start but I throw him in the game early and he doesn't come out much," Burtch stated. "(Lee) didn't play as a junior, but he is progressing. I think by the middle of the season he should be able to help us.
"We got all the pieces in place," he added. "We're real excited. We're going to be able to play a different style of ball. We're going to be able to play at a faster pace. We're going to try to put pressure on people defensively and we're going to do a lot more running.
"For all purposes, Ben is a 6-foot-7 guard," Burtch continued. "He moves like a guard, handles the ball like a guard, and shoots it like a guard. And no matter what lineup we have out there we're going to have four guards with Ben and we're going to be able to pick up the pace a bit." -- By Herald writer Pete Chiodo
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