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Grizzlies feature youth, experience: Conference championship within reach

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If nothing else, experience should not be a problem for the Franklin College men’s basketball team.

The Grizzlies have no shortage of that heading into Mon­day’s season-opener at Centre College (Danville, Ky.).

Although Franklin has only one senior, its roster is packed with juniors and sophomores who have either been starters or regular rotation players throughout their careers.

As a result, coach Kerry Prather enters his 30th season confident the Grizzlies will not only snap a three-year stretch of losing seasons but also will contend for the Heartland Collegiate Conference Athletic Conference championship.

Franklin won the regular-season title in 2009 and earned the HCAC Tournament championship in 2008. The Grizzlies were 11-14 last season and 8-18 the previous two years.

“Now we’re to a more conventional model where, yeah, there a couple of freshmen who are ready to play, but it’s only a couple, and it’s not guys that we’re going to live and die with,” said Prather, who has led the Grizzlies to four HCAC Tournament titles and five NCAA Division III postseason appearances. “That’s more kind of a normal way of looking at a team that’s got the potential of being pretty good.”

Franklin features seven players who appeared in 21 or more games last season, including returning starters Gunner Erwin and Bailey Howard.

Erwin, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, is the top returning scorer. He averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds last season and is — as the lone senior — the Grizzlies’ undisputed leader.

“From a talent standpoint, he’s a really versatile kid because he’s a 6-5 guard, and we just play him all over the place,” Prather said. “He’s gotten stronger. He actually posts up pretty well, but he can shoot it. He’s really good off the dribble. He’s long defensively, blocks a lot of shots.

“But the most important thing is he has been a great leader. He’s bound and determined that his senior year’s going to be a good one.”

Howard, meanwhile, is a 5-11 junior guard who averaged 12.3 points and 2.8 rebounds last season. He’s part of an experienced mix that includes junior guard J.T. Barton, junior forward Troy Porter, junior guard Terry Sargent, sophomore guard Patrick Ellis and sophomore guard Mark Kwiatkowski.

Franklin also expects contributions from 6-3 junior forward Bryant Conder, who played in 17 games as a freshman but appeared in only four last season. Dion Smith, a 6-3 forward from Franklin Central, also is expected to have an effect.

Although defending HCAC champ Transylvania was voted by league coaches as the preseason favorite to successfully defend the title, Prather doesn’t rule out a run by the Grizzlies, or any other team, for that matter.

“It’ll be the same meat-grinder that it’s always been. It’s such an even league. It always has been, and probably always will be,” Prather said. “I can’t wait for us to tip off because I’m excited about how they’ve prepared. I’m excited getting them on the court in live action. But more than that, I’m excited about watching them get better as the season goes on.

“Some teams you can tell are more interested than others in kind of finding out where they are, and then what they need to do to take the next step, and I think this is going to be one of those teams.”

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