WATERFORD MILLS — Ultimately, the decisions belong to Daniel Mast now, but the man has no shortage of coaching counsel nearby if he wants it.
“I’m really excited for my first year, and I’ve got a lot of support around me,” Mast understated as he discussed his team and his plans for his inaugural season as Bethany Christian boys basketball head coach.
Mast is the nephew of Jim Buller, who is Elkhart County’s longest-tenured and winningest boys coach ever, and still a guidance counselor at Bethany. Mast’s father, John, is a former head coach of the Bruin girls and is on his son’s staff, and his mom, Lois, is Bethany’s volleyball coach.
Further, the school’s athletic director is Gary Chupp, one of the Bruins’ all-time basketball standouts and a coaching veteran as well.
Mast himself is still teaching at Goshen Middle School, so he’s just blocks from Michael Wohlford, the Goshen High head coach he worked for during the last three years.
Prior to that, he was an assistant for three years over multiple stops in the Houston area.
In short, Mast, a 2006 Bethany grad who succeeded Ryan Gingerich in April, probably owns more coaching ties than the Bruins have managed victories over the last several seasons.
He doesn’t sound daunted by that equation, though, not with what he’s seen so far in practice.
“I think all coaches would say what they want most is a team that will play hard and be unselfish, and I can tell you, for this group, playing hard is not going to be an issue,” Mast said. “So if I have a wish beyond that, it’s that we’re moving and passing the ball well in the half-court and getting good shots, that we have confidence in each other.”
Bethany is coming off its second straight 3-20 season, and hasn’t won more than four games in any of the last seven seasons, that stretch spanning four coaches.
On the encouraging side, five of last season’s top six scorers return, and there are some new faces aboard being counted on to contribute.
Leading the way is Beck Willems, who broke the school’s 25-year-old record for points by a freshman when he scored 226 last winter. The previous standard belonged to Eliot Friesen at
“Beck is a really skilled shooter, has played a lot of basketball and has a lot of passion for the game,” Mast said. “His father (Bethany principal Hank Willems) is the soccer coach, and Beck
has that coach’s-son mentality. He’s very coachable, does whatever’s asked and wants to do whatever’s needed.”
Jack VonGunten, the Bruins’ No. 3 scorer last season at seven points per game, is also back. He’s one of three seniors with varsity experience, joined by Caleb Shenk and Jacob Plank. Mast
describes all three as versatile.
“All three will play prominent roles,” the coach said. “They’re all good leaders who are setting good examples in practice, which is helpful as we’re integrating things. They’re sponges who
ask a lot of questions and they’re working hard at trying to meet expectations.”
Among Bethany’s newcomers are a pair of junior transfers in Ethan Boyer and Mason Closson. Both were on the JV squad last season at Northridge.
The 6-foot-5 Boyer, 6-3 VonGunten and 6-3 sophomore Evan Brown provide the Bruins more collective height than they possess in most seasons.
“Jack and Ethan will probably be on the court at the same time,” Mast said. “I think offensively we could have a nice blend. Beck and Mason are good shooters, and Ethan and Jack give us
some size on the interior, so we’ll try to find that nice balance.”
Closson and junior Tristen Moore “offer a lot of athleticism in the backcourt,” according the their coach.
“I feel pretty confident we’ll be playing eight right away,” Mast said of his team’s depth.
Between that depth and the accompanying athleticism, the coach anticipates applying “some pressure on defense. We want to see if we can get some easy buckets on the offensive end.”
Bethany opens its season Saturday at West Noble. The home opener will be Tuesday, Dec. 3, against Lakeland Christian.
That will mark the Bruins’ first game on Buller Court since the stunning death of KeShawn Smith last February.
A popular student, captain and the team’s co-leading scorer with Willems at 10 points per game, Smith was killed in an auto accident one day after he was honored on Senior Night last winter to
end the regular season.
He was on his way to Huntington University for a recruiting visit.
“I haven’t noticed our guys being affected on the basketball floor,” Mast said, “but I think in a community like Bethany’s, tragedies will always linger longer, and I know our players are all
thoughtful guys, so I’m sure it’s something to be mindful of.”
Smith was saluted prior to the Bruins’ loss to the host Eagles at last season’s Class 1A Fremont Sectional.
This season’s sectional is again at Fremont, where Bethany will seek its first postseason title in 11 years.
“We haven’t addressed won-loss goals,” Mast said, “but we have addressed that what we’re working towards is winning a sectional. There will be a learning curve as far as how to win games, and there will be ups and downs, but the goal is to be our best come the end of February.”