By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: SU freshman guard Johnny Fierstein (No. 24) and SU junior point guard Blair Davis (No. 3) exchange the basketball vs. Frostburg State. Feb. 3. Hannah Wichrowski photo
At this time last season, the Salisbury University men’s basketball team was in the midst of a conference title behind the leadership of three veteran players including 1,000 point scorer, guard Justin Witmer.
Up north in Pennsylvania, the team’s next leader of the guard-contingent was on the court playing for NCAA Division II school Lincoln University. That point guard was now-junior Blair Davis.
Davis saw much time for Lincoln with five starts and 25 total appearances last season. But after the season, he made the move to Salisbury to work under SU Head Coach Andy Sachs.
At the time, the Sea Gulls were coming into the 2017-18 season with very little experience at the guard position. The only upperclassman returning was senior Jordan Brooks.
Last season, then-freshman Al Leder started all games at point guard with the lack of depth. One thing Davis brought in to the group was experience at the position and competition overall.
“In the beginning of the season, I was just trying to get my feet wet, just trying to know what Coach wanted out of me,” Davis said. “Once I started to get the flow and how we do things here, it was an easy transition.”
“[Coach Sachs] also makes it really easy because he tells you what he wants. There are no gray areas.”
What Sachs wanted was someone to fill the leadership void at the guard position and to mentor three talented freshmen that were coming into the program. With so much veteran experience gone after the 2016-17 season, this was a necessity for the team’s success.
Along with team captain Chase Kumor and senior forward Chad Barcikowski, Davis stepped up to that leadership role with the guards.
“I just try to stay in their ear, just letting them know what they’re doing wrong, what they’re doing right, letting them know when they’re doing something good also though,” Davis said.
“A couple of them come to me personally about things that they’re doing. They want advice, and I just try to be like a big brother.”
While leadership off the floor has come with Davis, production on it has emerged too. As the season has progressed, Davis has transformed from distributor into reliable scorer through his 10.8 points-per-game and 3.4 assists-per-game.
Also, Davis joins Barcikowski in a thriving duo that leads the conference in steals-per-game. For Sachs, another statistic pops out about Davis. The point guard is second on the team in deflections-per-game, a hustle statistic kept by the coaching staff.
“I think what he’s improved upon is beating his initial defender. Early on in the year he was trying to take on 6 feet 7 inches or 6-feet-8-inch guys at the rim which is hard to do when you’re 5-foot-11,” Sachs said. “He’s done a great job of making other guys better on the floor. You have to guard him because he can make open shots.”
Overall, Sachs sees an all-conference player in the junior point guard, someone that is a leader with the desire to win. That winning mentality was transferred into his mentoring of the future of the program in these freshmen guards that have stepped up down the stretch.
“I still want my guys to get better, me also, so we can keep this thing rolling next year too,” Davis said.
Those three guards are Johnny Fierstein, Gary Briddell and Mike Ward. All three with distinct characteristics that Sachs projects will be central to the SU squads for the next couple years.
Briddell, the local product out of Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Md., has shined early on in his career with a streaky scoring ability. He currently has eight games this season with over nine points scored.
“Making shots is great, but what he does is that he brings a lot of energy on defense,” Sachs said. He’s a very good offensive rebounder for his size. He does a lot of things that we value.”
The guard’s 6-foot-7-inch frame seems larger than listed at times when he is eager for a rebound. As a crucial piece coming off the bench, Sachs sees one of his most reliable first-year Salisbury guards in Briddell.
Justin May was part of a deep veteran guard unit two seasons ago in Sachs’ first season at the helm. Sachs says that Briddell brings a similar presence.
“Gary is an energy guy,” Sachs said. “So bringing him off the bench makes us better which is what you want your bench to do.”
After a rough 5-4 start to the season, Sachs sought a starting lineup change to try and cure woes. One player he turned to heading into the holiday season was Fierstein. Since that point, Fierstein has started in all games.
The lengthy point-forward has aided in creating opportunities offensively as the season went on. Over the period since he began starting, the team is averaging over 2.5 more assists-per-game.
“He makes everyone else better on the floor,” Sachs said. “He’s 6 feet 4 inches and he could almost be your second point guard out there. I can post him against smaller guards. He can make open shots.”
As injuries and departures have swept through as the season moves on, Ward has seen increased playing time and opportunities. For Ward, it has centered on a hard work effort that Sachs has witnessed all season.
Sachs remembers after a tough home loss to Virginia Wesleyan that Ward came back out into the gym to practice shooting after the game.
“We have another good defender coming into the game,” Sachs said. “He does rebound for his size. Mike can really score the basketball. He is respected among his teammates. He has an unbelievable work ethic. He doesn’t get down at all.”
With that strong work ethic comes high expectations from his head coach. Sachs sees the potential for a top scorer in Ward. It is an area that he has shined in recently.
In SU’s last two games, both on the road, Ward has netted at least 10 points. For now, this section of the team is moving in the right direction.
“He just wants to get better,” Sachs said. “He wants to be really good. He wants us to be really good.”
That is a theme that fits the young group from the junior leader to the freshmen. While Salisbury pursues another CAC Championship, they can at least be assured that this group of guards will be even stronger when next season rolls in.