Ben Volkening lives in a different world than he did seven months ago.
When the Marengo senior rises from a chair and begins walking around, the formerly persistent pain is gone. Getting out of bed each morning is no longer a major accomplishment. Any soreness he now feels can be alleviated with some stretching.
The back pain Volkening dealt with since his freshman basketball season, when he took a hard fall, is gone, thanks to a surgery performed in April. The 6-foot-7 forward is back running, throwing down dunks, liberated for what could be another banner year for Marengo.
“It feels really, really good,” Volkening said. “It’s amazing. I haven’t felt this good in four years.”
Marengo finished 27-6 last season, its best record since 2000 and a tie for the second-most wins in school history. The Indians played the last few weeks without Volkening, who suffered a broken ankle. Although his minutes already had been diminished as he played through the back pain.
Now, with a healthy Volkening joining dead-eye Zach Knobloch, who last season set the state record for 3-pointers in a season (167), along with guards Mike Volkening (Ben’s brother) and Craiton Nice, Marengo is poised for another big season.
“We have to treat it like every other team, we have to work hard on improving every day,” Indians coach Nate Wright said. “The team that won the regional and made it as far as we did last year wasn’t the same team that showed up Nov. 10 last year. And the team that showed up Nov. 9 this year won’t be the same team that does whatever we do at the end of this season.”
In Volkening’s case, not being the same player is the best thing that could happen. A surgeon fixed his L5 vertebra on April 29 with a bone graft from his right hip. Screws were inserted to hold everything in place. By mid-August, he was released for full activity and resumed training.
“Before the surgery, it was a hassle waking up in the morning and trying to get out of bed,” he said. “Now, it’s at the point where I can get up and do anything. I’ll sit in a chair and stand up and I’ll be waiting for the pain in my back, and it’s not there. I’m like, ‘This is different.’ It’s awesome.”
Wright is thrilled to see this version of Volkening.
“We’ve never really, other than a few practices his freshman year, seen a healthy Ben,” Wright said. “He’s legit. He’s doing pretty nasty dunking in practice. He is way beyond my expectations of where I thought he’d be at this point. It was almost like a depression he was in. He feels like he’s free from all that and can play without worrying anymore.”
Marengo graduated starters Weston Shepard, Koty Kissack and Hunter Simonini, who were vital in their resurgent season. The Indians have Knobloch, the Northwest Herald Player of the Year, their big man and talented guards in Mike Volkening and Nice, and should again be a force.
Tim Bassuener (6-5) and Colton Wightman (6-2) will add some size inside. Knobloch, Nice and Wightman will get late starts after playing on Marengo’s Class 4A football playoffs semifinal team. The Indians lost to Chicago Phillips, 47-13, Saturday night.
Marengo will be considered the Big Northern Conference East Division favorite, especially with two-time defending champion Richmond-Burton suffering some key losses. The Rockets lost center Reggie Banks (6-6) and guard Jesse Hill-Male to knee injuries from football. Their other big man, 6-10 Joey St. Pierre, transferred to La Lumiere School, a boarding school in LaPorte, Indiana.
“There’s going to be some high expectations for this team,” Mike Volkening said. “We’re starting from Phase 1, we’re 0-0, we don’t know what can happen. I have confidence that we know what to do.”
Knobloch averaged 22.4 points a game and hit 42 percent on 3s last season while setting the state record. He took his junior year off from football but returned this season, although he still arrived at school early each morning to practice shooting.
Wright knows how much Knobloch continued working on basketball, even during the football season, and is not concerned.
“We were joking the other day and he says, ‘Coach, I know it’s kind of crazy, but I think I’m a better shooter,’ ” Wright said. “There’s times in practice he’ll make 30 or 40 in a row. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve run out of things to say about it because I really don’t now how to explain how unbelievable it is when he shoots.”
Wright says some of the top NCAA Division III schools around – Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan and Wisconsin-Whitewater – are interested in Knobloch. He thinks Knobloch could thrive at NCAA scholarship schools in the right situation.
“If somebody takes a chance on him, I don’t think they’ll ever feel like they wasted their money,” Wright said. “You don’t understand until you see it in practice how ridiculous he is when he shoots. He makes 15 in a row in the middle of a scrimmage. It happens all the time. I don’t know what else to say about the kid. You can’t fathom it until you’ve witnessed it like we have.”