The new season has started for the Central Lakes College Raiders men's basketball team.
The non-conference games have ended and the Raiders have the same unblemished record as every other team in the Minnesota Community College Conference North Division. CLC (5-7 overall) hopes to begin its trek to the MCCC title tonight as it travels to Hibbing to face the Cardinals.
"What we do is start all over," said Raiders coach Jim Russell, who gave his team two weeks off for the holidays. "Overall, it was a good preseason for us. I'm pretty happy with this group and we've come a long way. We're really into the basic fundamentals like passing and defensive slides.
"I feel we have a good unit and good athletes and now if we can just jell together and work on the little things, it will bring them to the top."
Hibbing is a high-scoring, running team which has a considerable amount of experience, Russell said. Two returning starters are Joe Hanson, a 6-foot-5 post from Hermantown, who leads the Cardinals in scoring and rebounding, and Mark Gerber, a 6-2 guard from Ogilvie.
CLC is led by 6-5 wing Daakarr Bellfield, who averages just under 15 points and 12 rebounds per contest.
"Hibbing is going to rely a lot on three-point shooting and they really get up and down," Russell said. "I expect it to be a scrappy kind of game. This game is important because it's nice to start on the right foot right away. It's also nice to be on the road so we don't have the pressures of playing at home."
Women face critical stretch
Playing two North Division opponents this weekend, the Raiders' women's basketball team is going to have to choose one of two paths.
If the Raiders (3-5) choose the right path, they will build on their current three-game winning streak and get a jump on the other teams in the playoff hunt. If they choose the wrong path, the Raiders could fall to the bottom of a tough conference.
"This first weekend is going to be especially important," CLC coach Dennis Eastman said. "Our big game is Rainy River on Saturday. They are always going to be a challenge up there (International Falls)."
Eastman said he doesn't know too much about the Voyageurs, except what he saw last season. Rainy River forced the Raiders, who were third in the state tournament, to win on a last-second shot. With four seconds remaining and the Raiders down by one point, CLC's Angie Swanson caught a full-court pass and converted a layup for the win.
Eastman said Rainy River coach Dieter Humphrey always puts together a competitive squad. This year's contingent includes All-American Pam Van Bergen, who started at North Dakota State but left because of a knee injury. She averages 19 points per game for Rainy River.
The Raiders will play at Hibbing 6 p.m. Friday and are at Rainy River at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Another challenge facing Eastman will be focusing the Raiders after a holiday break during which they had 11 days off.
Men and women travel separately
For the first time, the men's and women's basketball teams will travel to the same site in different vehicles.
Because the men will not be playing at International Falls on Saturday, the teams will travel to Hibbing on Friday in separate vans, Eastman said.
The Rainy River men's team had only seven players out for the team and three have been declared academically ineligible.
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