Adversity not an uncommon foe for these Hawks

Early before the Roger Williams University men’s basketball team’s 2017-18 campaign even began, the group’s veterans and newcomers were well aware of the grueling and slow process of taking on each challenge one day at a time.

Of course, it sounds cliché to those on the outside, but within that locker room, the desire for these 16 young men to grow and improve during every workout and practice is natural and habitual. It is also cultured.

The “blue collar,” “roll your sleeves up” culture we’ve all heard so much about is very real and present, instilled into the minds of the Hawks and has earned them great success in recent seasons. Once just a desire to build on success is now expected.

So far, this season hasn’t been much different. The Hawks currently sit fourth in the Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) standings with a 14-6 record and 8-5 conference record behind outstanding play from their veteran leaders and then some. Junior Austin Coene has led the team with his scoring ability, while the trio of seniors Nick Marini, Conor O’Brien, and Jaylen Jennings are all having solid years. Young talent has also stepped up in the form of Rich Pugliese, who’s shown great maturity as a starter.

With these Hawks, success has been good to them thus far, but it hasn’t come without facing adversity.

An injury to Rich Pugliese kept him out of the first seven games of January and a four-game losing streak in the span of a week in the middle of the month put a looming, dark cloud over the Hawks. All of the losses being close games and at the hands of CCC powerhouses Endicott, Gordon, Wentworth, and Nichols made some players admittedly “disappointed,” as Marini put it.

“Us captains we met with coach [Michael Tully] and we talked to him,” he said. “We were trying to figure out where we were almost going wrong, but kind of realized that we didn’t have to reflect on what just happened. We had to think about going forward. We just had to focus on getting better every day and then if we take care of the small things every day that’s gonna put us in a good position of a game and where we want to be. It’s more about focusing on the process rather than the results.”

A cause for panic would’ve been a normal response for many teams, but the Hawks simply stayed the course and knew the storm would come to a cease.

“We’re a pretty tight knit group all around,” Marini says. “We always get dinner together, whether it’s hanging out watching games outside of the basketball. We didn’t really switch anything up it was kind of  just, ‘This is what we gotta do. Come in every day focused and try to get as good as we can.’”

The group’s focus on trusting the process, getting back to their defensive roots, and closing out games were key to ending the losing skid. The Hawks allowed an average of 87.2 points a game on 46 percent shooting during the four-game stretch.

“I think we just have to lock in mentally on defense for the whole 40 minutes because I know during that stretch we were starting slow in the first-half,” Marini said. “Two of those games we dug ourselves in a 10-point deficit by halftime and we would turn it on by second-half and at that point we were trying to claw back from 10 to 16 points, so that doesn’t really put us in a good position. I think we just gotta play better defense and close out possessions by getting rebounds.”

As students returned to campus on Jan. 24 from a month-and-a-half winter break, the Hawks sought to return to their winning ways. Back to their defensive roots and with Pugliese healthy, the Hawks beat Western New England 81-58 on White Out night behind a dominant second-half defensive performance. 

Of late, the team reeled off three straight wins and is getting back to their defensive identity, but a right ankle injury Jennings sustained against University of New England on Saturday has him out for almost two weeks, if not longer.

“Well Jaylen, he’s obviously a leader. He’s a captain for us,” Marini said. “Everybody loves Jaylen and I think everybody on our campus knows that too. We’re losing a starter that plays 30-plus minutes a game so whenever that happens somebody’s gotta come in and play some significant minutes. Like I said the other day, it’s kind of the ‘next man up’ mentality, so whoever comes in knows what they have to do and I mean we trust everybody on the team. Everybody works hard in practice every day, so just come in and execute.”

RWU got the job done without him for one night in an 88-74 win over Salve Regina on Tuesday with the team’s younger guys having some awe-inspiring moments and a 41-point outburst from Coene, but how the Hawks play without Jennings down the stretch could potentially determine how the end of the regular season plays out.

With just five regular season tilts left, the adversity the team has dealt with throughout the year serves as a special reminder to some Hawks. The reminder that they are in control of how their story and season ends.

“It’s crazy,” Marini said on this being his senior year. “A couple weeks ago, our assistant coach, [Dan] Weidmann, pulled me, Conor, and Jaylen aside and pretty much laid it out. He was like, ‘Here’s what’s going on: You guys have 13 practices left in your senior year. It’s gonna be the last time you’re playing basketball, so how do you guys want to end your basketball careers?’ So with that, you can’t take any day for granted. You gotta come in every day and work as hard as you can and hopefully we can get rolling at the end of the season. Get back to that conference championship and win it and and keep on going.” 

The vision the Hawks had early before the 2017-18 campaign even started can be seen in the distance. Beyond the desire for a championship seems to be a slight motivation for redemption after previous season endings.

“That’s the goal for everybody,” Marini said. “I mean, we got there my sophomore year, we lost to a pretty good Endicott team and last year we were a little disappointed with the end of the season. We lost in the the first round. It would mean a lot. I know to the whole team and especially to the seniors. It’s a good feeling playing in that championship game. We would just like to get on the other end of it.”

How RWU handles this adversity could very well define how they finish their season, but so far, the Hawks seem well versed in confronting it. The expectations students and fans have placed on these Hawks are about the same as the one they’ve placed on themselves.

“I think everybody knows how good we can be when we play up to our potential,” Marini said. “When we put together a full 40 minutes I think we’re a pretty good basketball team. I think it just comes down to executing on both ends of the floor and playing for each other and playing hard.”