Winning the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association men's basketball title seems like an eternity ago for the Vancouver Island University Mariners.
In truth, it has only been six months since they upset the rest of the country as a wildcard in Montreal to win their first national championship in 19 years, 77-70 over the Holland College Hawks.
They have spent the last two months practicing, scrimmaging and playing exhibition games, but on Saturday, they will finally tip off their title defence in Victoria against the Camosun Chargers.
"Training camp was a long process, for the players and the coaches," said head coach Matt Kuzminski. "It's exciting to be starting the season, and I think we've made a lot of progress the last two weeks or so."
They return many of the same faces that helped them to their championship, including all-Canadian Brandon Jones, but there are a number of new players that will be integral to the success they have this season.
At the top of that list is top transfer Seth Goodman, who did not play last year after running out of eligibility at the junior college level. The six-foot-five veteran out of Katy, Texas, brings a level of polish and leadership that is needed in the program, especially after the graduation of all-Canadian post Tyler Olsen.
Kuzminski is wary about rushing him into the starting lineup on Saturday, due to the rust of missing all of last year and a brand new league, but he should see considerable time coming off the bench.
"Seth's been making some strides," said Kuzminski. "Just from being out of basketball he was behind on all the fundamentals and team aspect offensive type stuff, but he's really been making some strides and I think he's really going to help us."
Goodman is, however, starting to feel more comfortable with the Mariners.
"I'm feeling really good, everything is looking really positive now, the team is really starting to come together," he said. "It's just a process, it's a marathon, it isn't a sprint."
Another new face who could potentially make an early impact is six-foot-seven Duncan freshman forward Jerod Dorby. But it is not a complete make over on the court.
The most important piece from their championship is still in place.
There was a lot of concern before Jones when home for the summer that he would not be coming back, but he committed for his final year of eligibility before leaving for Portland.
He has come back and Kuzminski says is even better than last year.
The six-foot guard dominated when it mattered most last year and was named MVP of both the CCAA Championships and the Pacific Western Athletic Association Championships and VIU male athlete of the year.
But there is a different feel to this team for the Portland, Ore., product.
"Last year we had a bunch of new people with new coaches and a new system we had to learn," he said. "This year, (only) half the guys are back, and it has been hard trying to get everyone on the same page from last year to this year. It's been a struggle, but it has been a good struggle. We've been teaching people to be more patient. It's hard to learn a new system."
Also back from last year's team is fifth-year guard Clayton Billett and his younger brother Connor Billett, while Harrison Stupich and Evan Verdel also returned.
One player Kuzminski believes will surprise some people is Jason Fortin out of Dover Bay Secondary School.
The six-foot-four, third-year power forward will be given a big opportunity this season to establish himself as a full-time player. "He started for us all year, but he probably played 20-minutes (a night), because we had (Adam) Connolly, (Ryan) Davidson and Olsen," said Kuzminski. "He's going to play a lot for us this year. Just his energy, his aggressiveness and his willingness to outwork players makes him a very good player."
The Mariners struggled early in the pre-season, losing their first four contests, but they finished strong, beating Multnomah 136-118 and Portland Bible College 79-58 in a Portland road trip this past weekend.
They are hoping to build off of that against the Chargers on Saturday.
"You work so hard in September and October and you're basically beating yourself up and we lost some games to some tough teams, so get two wins and build some momentum heading into the season is big," said Kuzminski.
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