Johnson, Hepp lead Bearcats into 2002-03 campaign

With two of the top players in the Northwest Conference returning and a strong supporting cast, Willamette University men’s basketball coach Gordie James can hardly wait for his 16th season to begin.

The Bearcats return three starters and four other lettermen off last year’s young team that surprised the NWC by going 18-8 overall and tying for second in the conference at 12-4.

But this year, with the return of first-team NWC picks Marques Johnson and Ryan Hepp, along with starter B.J. Dobrkovsky, the Bearcats likely will not be overlooked. At the outset, James said those three will start along with junior Miles Sandgathe and freshman Brennan Garrelts.

Johnson, a post, finished second in the conference in rebounding (8.5) last year and sixth in scoring (16.4). Hepp, a point guard, ended up 14th in scoring (13.1) and fifth in both assists (4.36) and free throw percentage (.780).

Dobrkovsky, a wing who started all 26 games last year as did Johnson, averaged 9.8 points and 4.7 rebounds a game.

Sandgathe, who will move from post to wing this season, was a valuable sixth man a year ago. He scored 7.5 points and shot .820 from the free throw line as a sophomore.

Garrelts, a freshman from Roseburg High School, will start at the other post opposite Johnson.

The immediate supporting cast consists of Ryan Rahlfs, David Force and Harold Sublett Jr. Rahlfs and Force, both juniors, made significant contributions off the bench last year and will likely provide more punch this season. Sublett Jr. returns to the squad after playing as a freshman in 2000-01.

“Our strength is our half-court man defense,” said James, who is 260-152 in his previous 15 seasons at Willamette. “That defense is ignited by Hepp’s containment of the basketball and the denial defense of Sandgathe, Dobrkovsky and Garrelts, and anchored by the paint play of Marques Johnson.”

While most of the parts to last year’s team are intact, James said this year’s edition of the Bearcats is probably a little more athletic and has a deeper bench.

“This is a proficient transition team that can push it and finish plays at the basket,” he said. “The key to our half-court offensive game will be our ability to move the ball, create plays for each other and make open shots. And, as always, we must be persistent on the glass.

“Harold, David and Ryan are key ingredients to a deeper bench and a more active offensive and defensive scheme.”

The Bearcats tied Whitworth for second place in the NWC last year, finishing one game behind conference champion Lewis & Clark. In the 2002-03 preseason coaches’ poll, the NWC coaches picked Whitworth to win the title, followed, in order, by Linfield, Willamette, Lewis & Clark and Puget Sound.

COACH JAMES ON IS TOP EIGHT PLAYERS:

“Miles Sandgathe has made a positive transition to a wing spot, both as a deny defender and a mid-range jump shooter.”

“Ryan Hepp has taken his game up another notch, and he is our catalyst at both ends of the floor.”

“B.J. continues to make hombre-like plays both on defense and on the boards.”

“Brennan has quickly adapted to our system and is maximizing his abilities as he increases his role and responsibilities.”

“Marques continues to be persistent and relentless, playing end-line to end-line. All he does is just play.”

“After a year away, Harold has stepped back into the sixth-man’s role with competitiveness and intelligence. He makes things happen.”

“David is a multi-dimensional guy who is very creative and sound with the ball. His individual defensive skills have shown marked improvement.”

“Ryan Rahlfs steps in the game and provides post energy and execution. He runs the floor, posts up and plays all-out.”