Men’s Basketball climbs up in NESCAC standings

At the end of last year, Colby men’s basketball was better known for their bench celebrations than for their play on the court; however, that may not continue to be the case for long, as the Mules have worked their way into contention after years in the league cellar.

In his short time at the helm of the men’s basketball program, head coach Damien Strahorn, has righted the ship and brought new life to the once-struggling Mules. Since taking over the program during the 2011-2012 season, he has lead Colby up the ranks of the NESCAC where currently, the Mules sit in sixth place tied with perennial league powerhouse, Williams. Colby is 13-9 and has the highest-scoring offense in the league. Led by co-captains Luke Westman ’16 and third-year captain Connor O’Neil ’15,  the Mules have truly come together as a team and their cohesion has led to results on the court.

Colby is no stranger to success. Under his 40-plus year tenure as head coach, Dick Whitmore led the team to over 600 wins; the Mules, however, had fallen out of touch with their winning culture. After Whitmore, who ranks seventh in DIII for career wins, resigned, Coach Strahorn was called upon to “rebrand” Colby Basketball. The former standout Mule turned coach came in with a mission, but knew it would take time. “For me the first hope was to be able to get the program back to where it once was. Given where the program was when I took over, I knew it was going to be a process…and that there would be challenges along the way. We needed to be committed to excellence.” This year, the plan Strahorn implemented has come to fruition and the Mules have realized success in the NESCAC and in non-conference play.

Although on paper this is one of the best years in recent memory for the Mules, the team is still not satisfied. Both O’Neil and Westman commented on how both the team and individual players need to be setting more ambitious goals. Both captains try to lead by example, and under their leadership, they have instilled a culture change on the squad. “Three years ago, there was no desire or commitment to improve,” remarked O’Neil. “No one was staying after practice to put up shots or run sprints…but now if you go down to the gym at any time, I guarantee there will be a person on the team working to get better.” Early on in his time as captain, O’Neil noted how the Mules broke huddles saying “commitment” but were not truly committed. Now, that commitment to doing the little things right, the “commitment to excellence” is there. For Strahorn this began with the players.

The first recruiting class of the Strahorn era has been the leading force behind the “rebranding” of Colby basketball. This class was quick and ready to fully buy into the program and featured players like Westman, who “stepped in and was a leader on the court from day one,” Chris Hudnut ’16, who has been the center of the Mules offense, and Ryan Jann ’16, who has been “a strong voice both on and off the court for the team.”

Both captains described Strahorn as a players’ coach. “He is a rare type of coach, where you can respect him for his commitment to the team,” noted Westman, “but also respect him as a friend because he is not just passionate about us as basketball players, but as individuals.” The attitude to coaching that Strahorn takes is one where he is encouraging good plays rather than harping on the bad. He has a unique ability to connect with players as he was in their shoes 13 years ago. As a former player, he is extremely passionate about Colby and it shows on the sideline during the game. It is not uncommon for Strahorn to storm up and down the bench, yelling at the refs, stomping his feet, and waving his hands multiple times throughout a game. His passion is infectious, as evident with the team attitude toward losing having shifted. “When we used to lose, guys would be joking in the locker room five minutes after the game…now we hate losing. When you change a culture, it doesn’t happen overnight…we’ve really grown as a team over the past couple years and it all started at the top with Coach,” O’Neil said.

The culture that Strahorn has worked hard to instill in the team over the past four years has begun to show. The team is a cohesive unit that works hard and does the small things right, and the future is definitely bright for the Mules as they return most of their starters as well as their top scorers next year. O’Neil triumphantly alluded to this, saying, “this year we worked ourselves into the conversation, next year we will be the conversation. The NESCAC is wide open as the typical powerhouses struggle. Next year is our year.”

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