A mere three winters ago, winning basketball was a hope for the University of Toledo men’s program.
“I was talking to one of our radio guys the other night and he was bringing up some names of former players,” said Huntley graduate Jason Kalsow, an assistant coach for the Rockets. “I said, ‘Doesn’t that seem like five or 10 years ago?’”
The team’s 4-28 season in the first year of coach Tod Kowalczyk’s tenure seems so distant now that the team has enjoyed an impressive turnaround.
After posting 19- and 15-win seasons over the past two years, Toledo is making noise this season.
The Rockets are off to a 16-2 start and lead the Mid-American Conference’s West Division with a 4-1 record. One of their two losses came against No. 8 Kansas.
“We definitely have a lot more athletes,” Kalsow said of the team’s steady improvement. “We have really good depth, too. We play 10 guys, and they’re all capable. When we play our six through 10 guys, we don’t have any dropoff.”
The Rockets boast a starting five that all average double figures in scoring. The group includes junior guard Rian Pearson (14.7 points a game), a second-team All-MAC selection last season, and sophomore guard Julius Brown (14.2), an all-conference third-team choice a year ago. Last season, the team shared the MAC West title but was ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA penalties related to poor Academic Progress Rate performance under previous coaching regimes.
“This is a very hungry, humble group,” Kalsow said. “They’re very focused on one game at a time.”
After a standout career at D-III Wisconsin-Stevens Point and three seasons on the bench at his alma mater, Kalsow spent two seasons with Kowalczyk at Wisconsin-Green Bay before joining the head coach’s staff at Toledo.
“I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity he gave me,” said Kalsow, who is now the senior assistant on Kowalczyk’s staff.
Along with learning the ropes in recruiting and day-to-day operations of a program, Kalsow said he is more heavily involved in in-game decision making than ever before in his career.
“[Coach] has been great,” he said. “He has almost 25 years of college coaching experience, so I’ve learned a lot of different ways to work with personnel.”
As for his future, Kalsow said being a head coach is a goal.
“Obviously, that’s something that all assistant coaches are in the business for, to lead their own program,” he said. “But we have a really good thing going here.”
Last summer, Kalsow married former Toledo women’s basketball player Allie Clifton.
Basketball season makes for a unique time in their relationship.
While Kalsow is coaching the Rockets, Clifton is working for Fox Sports Ohio as the sideline reporter for Cleveland Cavaliers’ TV broadcasts.
“We live apart for about five months because she works all 82 (NBA) games,” Kalsow said. “When we’re playing, I’ll DVR those games.”
Superb start: Auburn senior track and field athlete Marcus Popenfoose (Huntley) opened the season last weekend by placing third in the shot put at the Auburn Indoor Invitational in Birmingham.
Popenfoose’s throw of 56 feet, 8˝ inches was less than 5 inches from his season-best toss last season.
Last spring during the outdoor season, Popenfoose placed 16th at the NCAA national meet in the shot put and won the Southeastern Conference title in the event.
Preseason recognition: Jacobs grad Ben Albano, a senior outfielder for D-II Lewis University’s baseball team, has been named to the national Player to Watch list by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
Albano is a two-time All-Great Lakes Valley Conference first-team selection. Last season, he finished second on the team in hits (54) and home runs (seven) while posting 14 multihit games and batting .305 for the Flyers (33-18). He also posted a .469 slugging percentage.
Albano has started 111 games in his career for Lewis.
New conference address: Dubuque University’s women’s lacrosse team will have new conference addresses for the next two seasons.
The Spartans and sophomore attack Carlie Gabrys (Harvard) played their inaugural season as an independent last year. The team will play in the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference this season, which begins Feb. 22 in Minneapolis against Augsburg College.
In 2015, Dubuque has been invited to become part of the five-member College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin women’s lacrosse lineup in the spring of 2015.
In Dubuque’s inaugural season last spring, Gabrys started all 12 of the team’s games.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column and a blog about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at BarryOnCampus@hotmail.com, check out his On Campus blog at McHenryCountySports.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryOnCampus.