Looking to rebound from a 7-10 record in league play last season, the Vikings come into the 2022-2023 season with the goal of reclaiming their spot at the top of the Great Northwestern Athletic Conference (GNAC).
Head coach Tony Dominguez said the last few years have been odd for the program.
“The last normal year we had, we won the [GNAC] tournament. We're in the NCAA Tournament; we're back where we wanted to be,” Dominguez said. “From that point, things got really weird for us.”
COVID-19 lockdowns shut down college basketball. Western typically plays around 30 games throughout a season. During the 2020-2021 season, they were only allowed to play six. Due to five of 10 scholarship athletes being injured or unavailable, the Vikings opted out of the season entirely.
The following season brought more challenges relating to pandemic.
“[We] beat all the best teams in the region,” Dominguez said. “And then we got COVID-19. Our opponents got COVID-19. We didn’t play games for a month.”
Things weren’t the same after the month-long break and some of that struggle, Dominguez said, was due to players dealing with COVID-19 fatigue.
“We just weren’t mentally there like we were in the beginning,” Dominguez said.
Returning senior guard, Daniel Hornbuckle, said the pandemic messed with the team’s ability to gain chemistry in the offseason, but this year is different.
”I think the reason why we’re so close-knit is because we actually got to work with each other all through spring and summer,” Hornbuckle said.
Hornbuckle said last season’s players didn’t have enough time to learn one another’s play style and tendencies due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Both coaches and players want to get back to being the top team in the GNAC. Under coach Dominguez, the Vikings have been GNAC regular season champions twice, won the conference tournament twice and made it to the NCAA DII tournament three times (including a trip to the Final Four in his first season as head coach).
Returning senior guard Lucas Holden said that they definitely want to get back to the GNAC championship. But to make it there, there are a few factors they want to focus on.
Holden said that the Vikings’ success this upcoming season will start on the defensive end with boxing out and keeping their opponents in front of them.
Holden and the other captains are trying to communicate how important sharing the ball is with the rest of the team.
“Even though we might have the most skilled players in the league, team basketball always wins,” Holden said.
Holden believes that sophomore Kai Johnson and redshirt freshman BJ Kolly – a 6-foot-8 forward from Everett, Washington – will step into bigger roles this season.
“No one’s seen him play yet,” Holden said of Kolly. “I definitely think he’s going to be a shock.”
The team had the opportunity to showcase their talent on Tuesday night at Western’s annual Viking Jam event at Sam Carver Gymnasium, where the men’s team put on a dunk contest featuring Western players Matthew Mayes, Liam Clark, Wyatt Watson, Darius Gary and BJ Kolly.
Gary and Kolly met in the finals, where Kolly ultimately won over the crowd with a clean high-flying dunk.
The event displays the potential of the team, which has nine players that are 6-foot-6 or taller on their roster. The Vikings also have D’Angelo Minnis, the 2021-2022 GNAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Western landed two recruits from Division I programs during the offseason: 6-foot-9 forward Wyatt Watson from University of Portland and 6-foot-9 forward Jonathan Ned from University of Georgia.
Dominguez has high ambitions for the 2022-2023 season.
“We want to win the national championship,” Dominguez said.
He said he knows what it takes to win a championship, and he believes this team is capable of doing so.
"We’re so loaded,” Hornbuckle said while talking up each individual player and their skill set. “If anybody has an opportunity or chance to come out and watch, we’d love the support.”
For more photos from the Viking Jam, click here.