Senior captains Jonathan Damota and Alik Airapetyan made the decision to quit the men’s basketball team early on in the 2018-19 season. This change caused the Fire to lose a lot of necessary leadership and skill. For Airapetyan, playing time was an issue.
“[Coaches] tell you what they expect from you. And for me, they just seemed like they expected more for me just to lead rather than actually contribute, but I thought I could do both,” Airapetyan said.
Damota thinks that change is a necessary part of building a program.
“I’ve been here the longest out of everybody and everything’s been the same. For a program to be successful or do something differentÉ I think that’s necessary,” Damota said. “For me, it was more like a team thing and I just wasn’t ready to commit my time and energy to something that wasn’t paying me back the same way.”
Lack of structured leadership is something that Coach Kevin Walden believes hurt their program significantly. With a 1-16 record so far and only eight games to go, having the seniors could have changed a lot.
“[We struggle with indecision because we’re] young and haven’t been [in certain situations] before. We go against teams with older groups and [they have more experience]. Nine of our 16 losses were within the second half when we were leading in the first. We need to correct ourselves,” Walden said.
Airapetyan expressed the feeling of not being respected as an upperclassmen, explaining that the coaches “don’t regard the upperclassmen too highly sometimes.” The coaches perception of the disrespect was very different.
“I am tougher on guys I hold to a higher standard. I hold upperclassman to higher standards. We wanted [Damota] to score 1000 career points and be an All-Midwest Conference selection. He had the ability to do both for our basketball program,” Walden said.
Airepetyan felt as if he should’ve been given more of an opportunity to show what he could do, and when he wasn’t given that opportunity, he decided to spend the six week break with his family back in California rather than stay in Galesburg for practice.
“I’ve been here for three years now and I feel like I should be given that chance to show what I can do and I felt like coming in senior year, being a captain and all that, it’d be different,” Airepetyan said.
The coaching staff had high hopes for their seniors coming into the season. With 326 points on the season last year, the highest on the entire team, Damota was capable of all-conference. He was only 385 points away from the career 1,000 that the coaches had hoped for him. But for the senior guard, the same feeling wasn’t there as before.
“I really loved playing and I could’ve been all-conference this year. And I’ve had a lot of individual accolades that are cool and all but if we’re not winning and I’m not having fun, that’s the main reason I play basketball,” Damota said. “I didn’t want to give up on [my teammates]. I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to quit, I kind of just waited a couple days in practice and I just wasn’t happy there.”
After losing over 10 players last season, eyes were on the men’s program. For Coach Walden, last year’s losses were significantly less than the loss of his seniors.
“It’s not the guys that aren’t playing and then quitting. We have lots of guys that are not playing that relish the opportunity to play. We want guys with good, positive attitudes. The guys that have hurt us are the guys that have played and we’ve counted on to get older and we haven’t been able to get older,” Walden said.
The team hasn’t been able to keep players on the roster as upperclassmen. Without consistent leadership and having to rely on freshmen each year, the coaching staff has had a difficult time building a winning program. Airepetyan and speaks to this loss of experienced players well.
“There’s been a lot of people going in and out, everyone can see that. If everyone stayed for the last few years, the team here could be pretty solid and stacked up,” Airepetyan said. “But the amount of talent that has left É Like I said, that’s just the way it works. It’s tough when you have to bank so heavily every year on the freshmen coming in because there’s not enough upperclassmen to lead.”
Athletic Director Daniella Irle thinks it’s unfortunate that the pair quit, but wants to see the program recover and see some success for those players that are still committing their time to the game and their teammates until she can do a holistic review of the program at the end of the season.
“I think it’s unfortunate for those two young men to not have the opportunity to play their fourth year and not have closure to a career if you will but beyond that, I’m not going to make a judgment as to why, or was it justified or not,” Irle said.
Damota believes commitment to the team has been an issue in the past.
“If all we’re doing is losing games and everyone has a bad attitude, it’s hard. And me as a senior this year and previous years, I’m always stuck with dealing with people who are going to transfer,” Damota said. “I’m just here playing and if we’re not playing well and we keep losing, then [players] become uncommitted to me and to the team so how am I supposed to be happy with that? It’s a really difficult situation. If we win, people have more fun.”
The men’s basketball program had their most wins last season since Walden came to coach at Knox College in 2012. With a strong roster and three leading seniors heading the program, the Fire achieved that 7-18 record. This season, losing the leadership on the team was something on everyone’s mind.
Graduated senior captain and one of the three seniors last year, Marko Protic ’18, had his frustrations throughout his four years but stayed for his team.
“Guys just assumed we should be winning games and we’re not so they weren’t happy when in reality, winning games is a huge process that doesn’t happen overnight,” Protic said over text message. “I’m not one to judge others on why they left but what I can say is that I stayed because I loved my teammates, respected my coach, and wanted to win games for him when he gave me the chance to play college basketball so I worked hard each year to do that.”
Protic believed that the age on the team was important. Seeing the older leadership on the team drove him to want to work harder and having those leaders pushed him to be better, and he attributes the seven wins last year to that work from the seniors.
“When I was a freshman, there were a lot of older guys [that worked hard so] we wanted to win and change the program around,” Protic said. “That’s why you saw us putting in hard work and when other guys on the team saw how dedicated we were our four years they wanted to give their all to make sure they weren’t letting us down.”
Speaking to last years’ losses, Walden doesn’t believe they were too detrimental.
“It’s college basketball, we’re making tough decisions. I have to play the best people … The guys that got beat out didn’t have the right attitude to do it correctly and then they left, and we got better,” Walden said.
Junior transfer Justin Windt thinks the loss of the seniors was similar in the sense that current players had to fill those holes in the leadership.
“I think in the beginning, it kind of struck everyone. But it’s brought us together. Everyone has to be a leader now and step up,” Windt said.
Windt has been a great addition to the Fire and enjoys the opportunity to play after coming from a Division II program at Lewis, where he didn’t see the floor too often. Coach Walden appreciates Windt and thinks he is a great leader for the Fire.
“He was at a different place, didn’t play very much and came to us because he wanted to play. He was at a Division II school and he’s really appreciating [getting playtime and being part of a great program] and you can see how a guy who’s taken an opportunity and taking full advantage of it, how improved he is from the beginning of the season until now,” Walden said.
The coaching staff has tweaked the lineup and has been working to finish the season strong. Walden believes the problem right now is turnovers so the team is working hard in practice to reduce the little mistakes that have hurt them.
“We’ve done tweaks to our own team to help eliminate thinking as much and rather just having them play so they don’t have to make thoughtful decisions so they don’t have to turn the ball over so much.” Walden said.
Irle said there will be an evaluation at the end of the season and it will look at everything such as equipment, funding, recruiting, facility and staffing.
“There’s usually a combination of things, but at the end of the day it’s my job to figure out what is the next step and what’s the best step to get some level of success as fast as we can,” Irle said. “And sometimes there’s different answers to that question and given that we’re not at the end of the season, that’s not a question I can answer for you yet. I can tell you losing is never about one thing.”
Irle is also excited for this stretch of home games.
“Right now, I’m focused on these home games. They have a lot of home games coming up because they’ve been on the road a lot and so I’m very excited because now we get to watch some basketball,” Irle said.
The men will face off against Beloit College on Friday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. at home and Lake Forest College on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 3:00 p.m. at home.