There was nothing easy about the historic season for the Montreat College men’s basketball team in 2018, when the Cavaliers won a program record 24 games and earned a trip to the NAIA Division II National Championship Tournament in South Dakota.
Getting back will be even tougher.
The Cavs opened the 2019-20 season, Oct. 29, with a win on the road over Alice Lloyd College. Senior Austin Butler, a native of Morganton, scored a career-high 44 points in the 99-95 victory on his way to eclipsing the 1,000-point mark for his career.
“Austin is a guy who has gotten better every year he’s been here,” said fourth year head coach Garrett Jones. “He’s a guy I expect to take another step in the direction of becoming an all-around better basketball player. It was fun to see him get going.”
The victory sets the Cavs up for their Wednesday, Nov. 6 road game against Appalachian Athletic Conference opponent Kentucky Christian University.
“It’s difficult to win whether you’re at home or on the road,” Jones said. “So to get a road win to start the year, our locker room was really excited about it. But we understand at the same time there’s a ton of stuff for us to improve on.”
Butler led Montreat in scoring with 16.8 points per game a season ago.
"It's really important to get off to a strong start," Butler said. "As one of the leaders of this team it's my responsibility to set the bar as high as possible for the younger guys. We struggled offensively and defensively in that first game, so having that spark helped us come out of there with a win."
This year’s roster features plenty of new faces, following the graduation of Alonzo Mobley, Jerod Hemphill and other key contributors from a season ago.
“Things will look a lot different for us this year,” Jones said. “We lost a lot of guys from last year that played so many games for our program together, and last year I really feel like we hit our stride in terms of chemistry and guys all being on the same page.”
Jones will turn to senior Terrell Sheffey, of Hampton, Virginia, to play a key role this season. The guard was among the Cavs leaders in assists during the 2018-19 campaign.
"Terrell has played a lot of minutes for our program the last few years," Jones said. "We're expecting some great things from his during his senior year as he steps into more of a leadership role. The experience that he brings to this is valuable, because experience is something you can't coach."
Junior guard Eric Reed, out of Charlotte, is another player who figures to carry more of the load for Montreat as the season gets underway.
"In the past he's been kind of a spark plug off the bench for us," Jones said. "He will be looking at more consistent minutes, night in and night out. This year we expect him to take another step forward and he's a guy who can really score the basketball."
The Cavs won 19 games in 2016-17 and finished 21-10 in 2017-18.
"In past seasons we may have been able to sneak up on other teams," Jones said. "But now our program is in a position where opponents know who we are, and these younger guys have to understand that we have to be at our best every night."
One of the team's keys to success a season ago was pulling out victories in the final minutes of close games, according to the coach.
"Under five minutes in a tight game, those guys last year had been in those situations before and they knew how to handle it," Jones said. "This group hasn't been through that yet and the only way to get through it is to experience it."
A return to the national championship tournament will require determination on the part of young Cavs roster, the coach added.
"I love our guys' work ethic," Jones said. "They really want to compete every day in practice and get better, but chemistry doesn't happen overnight. So we're continuing to focus on learning how to play with the guy next to you."
The Cavs will host Reinhardt University at 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 16, in their first home game of the season.