New Faces Ready to Lead The NAIT Ooks in 2018-19

Ellis, Solon
Solon Ellis (1) comes to NAIT from the Red Deer Kings, and is one of several new faces on the roster for the Ooks heading into the 2018-19 season. (Source: Red Deer Express) (Header: CUE Thunder)

EDMONTON, Alberta — For the NAIT Ooks, it’s out with the old and in with the new in 2018-19 in terms of player personnel.

The Ooks are coming off a season in which they fell just short of a podium finish at the 2018 ACAC Men’s Basketball Championships. They entered the post-season as the second seed from the North Division after posting a record of 16-8.

A win in the quarter-finals over the Red Deer College Kings sent NAIT into the semi-finals. A loss in the semi-finals to the SAIT Trojans sent the Ooks to the bronze medal game and out of contention for a spot at nationals. The 2017-18 season for NAIT came to an end at the hands of the CUE Thunder by way of a 102-94 defeat.

When the dust settled, the Ooks saw several key contributors from last year’s team depart from the program, leaving various holes across the roster that needed to be filled.

Across the 2018-19 roster, one can see several transfers from various institutions across Canada. From players that the Ooks have played against in ACAC competition to players with experience at the U Sports level, the 2018-19 roster for NAIT is filled with new faces ready to make an impact with their new program.

The Ooks are hoping that the new faces can help guide the team to an ACAC title this season.

Heading into their last game of the regular season against the University of Alberta-Augustana Vikings, the Ooks were 8-2 since January 6th. They were rolling into the post-season and a win over the Vikings would have given them sole possession of second place in the ACAC North Division. After picking up a 77-61 win over the Vikings the previous night, NAIT was looking to sweep the home-and-home series.

Augustana had other ideas, and they ended the Ooks’ winning streak at five games with an 85-72 victory.

Despite the loss and earning a share of second place in the division with the Lakeland College Rustlers, the Ooks earned the second seed from the North Division at the 2018 ACAC Men’s Basketball Championships.

The Ooks went 1-2 over the three games at the provincial championships, picking up a quarter-final win over Red Deer College before falling to both SAIT and CUE to finish in fourth place out of the eight teams in the event. The 102 points that the Thunder put up in their win was the second-highest point total that the Ooks allowed all season long.

As the season came to a close, the attention quickly shifted to the 2018-19 campaign. Gone are the Ooks’ top three scorers from last year, as Jackson Jacob, Kennedy George, and Brady MacKay have all moved onto the next chapter in their respective careers. Several newcomers enter the fold for NAIT this season, including multiple transfers from different programs across Canada.

Up front, the Ooks welcome 6’8” forward Papa Diop to the rotation. Diop played last season with the Cape Breton Capers in the AUS. The native of Dakar, Senegal brings a ton of size to the front court rotation for NAIT, and he gives the team three players who stand at 6’7” or taller. Diop averaged 2.5 points and 3.4 rebounds over 17 games in 2017-18.

In the back court, guard Solon Ellis comes to the Ooks after playing one season in the ACAC with Red Deer. The 6’0” guard from St. Paul, MN is a two-way player who can impact the game on both ends of the court. Last season, Ellis posted 5.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game over 21 appearances with the Kings. With the personnel losses from last year’s team, Ellis should take on a starring role from the outset of the season.

Forward Ryan Dwelo is back in the mix this season for the Ooks after a strong 2017-18 season. The former transfer from the Regina Cougars saw action in 24 games last season, making 21 starts along the way. Dwelo posted 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game last season, and those numbers should increase as he enters his fourth season of eligibility in 2018-19.

The top returning scorer back from last year’s team is forward Samson Cleare, and he is also the lone player to average double-digit points per game last season on this year’s roster. The 6’7” forward from Nassau, New Providence Island was one of four players to post double figures a year ago, averaging 12.3 points per game on 61.2% shooting from the floor. Cleare also pulled down 8.1 rebounds per game, which was good for the second-best mark on the team.

Cleare was one of just two players to start all 24 regular season games for the Ooks last season (MacKay). The return of both Dwelo and Cleare will add some stability to a new-look starting five for NAIT heading into the new season.

After finishing in second place a season ago, the Ooks have their sights set on the top spot in their division in 2018-19. From there, they hope to turn regular season results into post-season success and make a run at both the ACAC and CCAA titles.

There may be some growing pains early on while the newcomers and transfers get acclimated to the systems that the Ooks run and while the team meshes together. NAIT should get things sorted sooner than later and contend for a North Division title and make a run at their league crown.

– T. Bennett

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