The 2016-2017 season was a personally gratifying one for Central Lakes College Raiders men's head basketball coach Jim Russell.
He earned his 400th career win in the opening round of the Region 13 tournament in a thrilling double-overtime win over St. Cloud Technical College. He also had the opportunity to coach his oldest son, Jacob, during a season in which CLC finished 11-3 in division play and 21-8 overall with a third-place finish in the state tournament.
As Russell begins his 20th season at CLC, he would love to put a national championship banner on the gym wall, but he takes pride in the quality of the young men who come through his program.
"One of the things that I told my guys is the amount of pride that I have in this place," said Russell. "We just passed out gear and I told my guys to wear it with pride. In the last two years, I have had 10 gentlemen who are in college finishing up a four-year degree. They are playing basketball and doing something they love while getting their degree."
The Raiders are scheduled to open season at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, as they host Leech Lake Tribal College. Russell has two key players returning from last year's team in Keonte Jenkins and Thomas Kornbaum.
Jenkins, who played just half of a season last year, was a 2016-2017 NJCAA Division III second team All-American.
"We need them to lead by example, and number two they have to become more vocal," Russell said of Kornbaum and Jenkins. "The sophomore year is a lot tougher than people imagine. The expectations are higher and the honeymoon stage is over. You have to give up some things that you did last year to make the team better in terms of chemistry and the overall team."
Russell has a number of first-year players including AJ Jureau Ray, Noah Champion, and Various Wilson. Russell is searching for an identity with this team as is normally the case this time of year.
"I don't know if we have that person right now to be honest with you," Russell said of having a vocal leader. "We are in that learning process. Some of these guys are really young so they are learning work ethic and what my expectations are. And the biggest thing is learning to play defense and trusting each other."
Northern Division play will begin in early January after a challenging non-division schedule which includes a game at Rochester and a home game against St. Cloud Technical College. The Raiders won't face Anoka-Ramsey, picked No. 1 in the Southern Division, during the regular season.
Northland finished with the best record in the division last year, but had to forfeit its 2016-2017 season (due to an ineligibility), but the Pioneers return a veteran team. Rainy River had a good campaign but also will feature many new players this winter.
The team that always gives CLC a battle is Vermilion, a rival of the Raiders as head coach Paul McDonald enters his 28th season. Russell and McDonald have more than 900 wins between them.
"A couple of weeks ago, we scrimmaged a few teams in our league and I saw that there is a lot of talent in our league," said Russell. "I think the environment that you have at your school and your location plays into that a lot. It's about what you have to offer to attract kids to come to your school."
As he moves into his 20th season, Russell continues to have the drive to win his first national championship, but he also relishes the opportunity each fall to bring in a new group, and teach them life lessons along with the game.
"There are so many kids that dream about playing basketball and I get to work with them, and it's about getting opportunities and what you do with them," Russell said. "I would like to put up a banner but I am so excited just to hear that my former guys are in school and are playing."
Former Raiders at four-year colleges:
Trey Heinses, Minnesota-Morris
Lamontrell Fuller, Nick Wiesman, Darsean Woodson, Mayville State University
Darnell Bacon, Ronald Bacon, TreyVon Lackey, University of Concordia Alberta
D.J Jones, finished playing last year, graduating this fall from Tabor College
Deshaun Patterson, Radumus Jones, Tabor College
N'Gia Dixan, Kansas Wesleyan University
No., Name, Position, Class, Hometown
0-Cameron LeShore, G, So, Fort Wayne IN
1-Isaiah Prouty, G, Fr, Anoka
2-Phil Conner, G, Fr, Indianapolis
3-Keonte' Jenkins, G, So, Fort Wayne IN
4-Osirus Washington, G, So, Brooklyn Park
5-Jordan Thompson, G, Fr, Oakdale
11-Sonam Paichang, G, Fr, New Brighton
12-Willie Morris, G, Fr, Indianapolis
13-Shamar Newman, G, Fr, Milwaukee
15-Al-Jureau Ray, G/F, Fr, Minneapolis
20-Thomas Kornbaum, F, So, Little Falls
21-Noah Champion, F, Fr, Maple Grove
23-Randall Douvier, G/F, Sedgwick KS
32-Various Wilson, F, Fr, Indianapolis
33-Dylan McLain, F, Fr, Brainerd
Nov 11, Leech Lake Tribal 7 p.m.
Nov 17, United Tribes Technical 7 p.m.
Nov 18, Northeast Community College 7 p.m.
Nov 21, Ridgewater at Willmar 7:30 p.m.
Nov 28, Leech Lake Tribal at Cass Lake 7:30 p.m.
Dec 1, at Rochester 7:30 p.m.
Dec 2, Western Technical College at LaCrosse, WI, 3 p.m.
Dec 8, MN State Fergus Falls 7:30 p.m.
Dec 9, St. Cloud Technical 3 p.m.
Dec 15, CLC Winter Invitational vs. Rainy River 8 p.m.
Dec 16, CLC Winter Invitational vs MN State Fergus Falls 8 p.m.
Jan 5, CLC Winter Classic vs Minnesota West 8 p.m.
Jan 6, CLC Winter Classic vs. Ridgewater 6 p.m.
Jan 12, Itasca at Grand Rapids 7:30 p.m.
Jan 13, Fond du Lac Tribal 3 p.m.
Jan 17, Vermilion at Ely 7:30 p.m.
Jan 20, Mesabi Range at Virginia 3 p.m.
Jan 26, Rainy River 7:30 p.m.
Jan 27, Hibbing 3 p.m.
Jan 31, Northland at Thief River Falls 7:30 p.m.
Feb 3, Vermilion 3 p.m.
Feb 8, Mesabi Range 7:30 p.m.
Feb 10, Rainy River at International Falls 3 p.m.
Feb 16, Itasca 7:30 p.m.
Feb 17, Northland 3 p.m.
Feb 21, Fond du Lac Tribal at Cloquet 7:30 p.m.
Feb 24, at Hibbing 3 p.m.
March 2, MCAC/Region 13 at Anoka
March 3, MCAC/Region 13 at Anoka
March 4, MCAC/Region 13 at Anoka