Falcons basketball teams have high hopes for new season

Posted November 9, 2016

Coming off successful seasons last year, both UW-River Falls basketball teams have high hopes for the 2016-17 campaign.

Last year, the women’s team finished 23-6, won the regular season Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) championship and advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

The men’s team finished in a tie for second place in the WIAC and advanced to the championship game of the conference tournament before losing to UW-Oshkosh and missing out on the NCAA tournament.

The men’s team graduated three seniors who saw a lot of playing time. The Falcons will look to Alex Herink, a transfer from Minnesota State, Mankato, to replace some of the production they got from Jon Christensen last year.

“We have a couple transfers we’re going to rely on throughout the season,” said Head Coach Jeff Berkhof.

Just one player from last year’s women’s team is not returning, but Coach Cindy Holbrook said that losing Richell Mehus was bigger than most people can see.

“She allowed us to do so many different rotations defensively because we knew we could trust her,” Holbrook said, adding that a lot of the players are filling the void of leadership left by Mehus. Holbrook said that she and her coaching staff are still in search of a player who can step into those defensive shoes and can be relied upon.

Holbrook credits some of the team’s success last year to the Falcons’ overall healthiness. This year, the team is off to a little bit of a bumpy start in that category.

“We’ve got a couple different players banged up, so we’re without them right now,” Holbrook said.

Berkhof said he thinks because of the strength of the conference, his team can compete with the best of the best in the country.

“We play in a league where if you can compete for a conference championship, realistically you can challenge for a national championship,” Berkhof said.

Only one team from the WIAC — the UW-Oshkosh Titans — made the d3hoops.com preseason Top 25, but four other schools from the conference, including River Falls, received at least one vote for consideration. This is a testament to how strong the conference is as a whole.

The women’s team is ranked 12th in the d3hoops.com preseason poll, the highest ranking of any school from the WIAC. The Falcons start just ahead of UW-Oshkosh, which is ranked 14th in the country. Two other women’s teams from the conference received votes.

Holbrook said that she doesn’t typically read a lot into preseason polls.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I don’t even know if our players have talked about it,” she said. What Holbrook does pay attention to is the schedule and in particular who her team plays in the nonconference portion. “Our nonconference schedule is ridiculous.”

She also said that her players understand they need to be challenged and the NCAA committee looks at that when determining who gets into the tournament.

The men’s team takes the same approach.

“Our first game is against the defending national champions,” Berkhof said. The Falcons will play in St. Paul on Nov. 15 against a University of St. Thomas team that comes into the year ranked 10th in the country.

The men’s coaching staff will stay fully intact from last year while the women’s team retains its head coach but lost three assistants. Paul Richie is the new assistant coach for the women’s team and, according to the UWRF athletics website, last worked for the Minnesota Suns and was previously an assistant at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

In preseason polls conducted by the WIAC head coaches and sports information directors, the men’s team was picked to finish fifth and the women’s team second despite having a higher national ranking than the team picked to finish ahead of it — UW-Oshkosh.

Both teams will begin regular season play on the road on Nov. 15 and will each play their first home game on Nov. 29 against Viterbo University.