Finding their place

Rachel Jones

Robert Johnson was so nervous in his first game he fouled four times.

Eric Gaines had too much energy to control.

Darius Leonard said the faster pace was horrible.

Mark Henniger took it all in like a sponge.

But the four freshmen on the Kent State basketball team each had to find a niche if they wanted to stand out in their first year.

“Usually, freshmen start off sitting the bench and learning,” said Geno Ford, Kent State coach. “These guys don’t have that option.”

“These guys” represents half of the eight new players to the team this year, the most new players the Flashes have had since 1996-1997. With only two returning starters, the rookies had to step up immediately.

“It’s been exciting,” Ford said. “This is one of the most talented freshmen classes we’ve had in a while — as a group and individually. We knew we were getting four good players, but to have three average double-digit minutes is incredible.”

Johnson, who sat the bench last year, was just as excited to start playing. But his season did not start the way he thought it would.

“I’ve never been nervous before, but I was so nervous (at my first practice),” the forward said. “I just didn’t want to get too tired too fast or mess up. I’m pretty sure I messed up though.”

His nerves continued through his first game.

“I was just anxious,” Johnson said. “I sat out all last year, so I just wanted to get out there. I fouled four times.”

Gaines said the beginning of the season was tough for him, too.

“It’s a lot harder to get to the basket,” Gaines said with a laugh. “I learned I need to slow down, too. My nickname is Speedy because I do everything fast.”

Ford, who agrees with the nickname, said Gaines has figured out how to maintain speed and control in his game.

“Eric has incredible energy,” Ford said. “That motor doesn’t stop. He is relentless, and you can’t teach that.”

That natural ability helped Gaines lead Hillcrest High School to a state championship, but he quickly learned high school basketball was different than college.

“In high school you play all the time,” Leonard agreed. “In college, you’re not playing 30 minutes a game.”

Ford said he does not give the players equal time on the court, so if they want to play they need to earn it.

“They think it’ll be easy, and when it’s not, they know they have to get better,” Ford said. “It’s a sobering experience. Once they hit that stage, they have to deal with the adversity and get past it.”

Ford said the player who understands this the most is Henniger.

“He’s like a sponge,” Ford said. “He’s picked up the system. They all know they need to get stronger and bigger, which will come with years in the weight room. But he understands the mental aspects of all of this.”

Henniger said reaching this level of basketball is a little intimidating, but he was ready for the challenges.

“My first game was exciting, crazy and hectic,” Henniger said. “But it’s worth it to get to this level. I chose to be here.”

Henniger is establishing himself as the player who is willing to learn. And the other players are starting to find their niches as well.

“(Johnson) is a low post scorer, and that’s a tough quality to have,” Ford said. “And Darius can guard big and shoot (three pointers). He’s really showing up in games, shooting well and making offensive rebounds.”

The freshman players hope to showcase their individual abilities when the Flashes (6-1) take on Louisiana at Monroe 7 p.m. Thursday at the M.A.C. Center.

Ford said the Warhawks have several strong, athletic players who could pose a threat to the Flashes.

“(The freshmen) have all helped with wins, but we’re going to test their toughness,” Ford said. “It’s a physical game, and they’ll have to fight through.”

The rookies’ numbers

Guard Eric Gaines

Minutes/game: 14.4

Points/game: 4.6

Rebounds/game: 3.1

Forward Robert Johnson

Minutes/game: 12.4

Points/game: 4.4

Rebounds/game: 3.9

Forward Mark Henniger

Minutes/game: 5.5

Points/game: 3.3

Rebounds/game: 1.3

Forward Darius Leonard

Minutes/game: 9.9

Points/game: 1.9

Rebounds/game: 3.1

Contact sports reporter Rachel Jones [email protected].