The Saint Francis men's basketball team climbed the mountain again last season, but – again – could not reach the peak.
The Cougars, who entered the 64-team NAIA National Championship tournament as a No. 9 seed, made a surprise run to the tournament's Final Four before falling 82-77 to eventual national champion Shawnee State.
It was the fourth time since winning a national title in 2010 that Saint Francis reached the Final Four but left without the hardware.
The Cougars' quest to add a second national championship trophy now belongs to a group that returns its top four scorers from last season, including floor general Antwaan Cushingberry and athletic forward David Ejah, a Carroll graduate.
“The sky's the limit for this team,” Saint Francis coach Chad LaCross said. “The expectations are through the roof and our guys expect to win, for sure. ... It's just a different level of intensity, our guys just really get after it in practice and it's fun every day, just to see the level of competitiveness.
“Our guys have been waiting since we took that loss to Shawnee State. We felt like we were right on the cusp and coming up on the short end left a sour taste in a lot of our guys' mouths.”
Saint Francis opens tonight at home against Michigan-Dearborn, while the Cougars' women, who went 14-12 in 2020-21, will meet No. 13 Indiana Tech on Saturday at the Schaefer Center.
The Cougars men will again look to Cushingberry to be the team's primary creator. The 5-foot-8 junior guard from Indianapolis led Saint Francis in scoring (18.1 points per game) and assists (4.9) last season, on his way to Third-Team All-American honors.
LaCross said Cushingberry has stepped into a louder leadership role this season.
“He just doesn't let anything go in practice,” he said. “If guys aren't getting after it or there's something we need to do better, he'll make comments about (the Shawnee State) game and he'll say, 'We're not losing that game, I'm not going to do it.'”
In Cushingberry and fellow guard Jalan Mull, a Blackhawk Christian graduate, the Cougars have a pair who can open the floor for shooter Dan McKeeman, a Carroll product. They also work well in transition with David Ejah, a sophomore who averaged 15 points and 9 rebounds last season and who has made an impression LaCross in preseason practices.
“It's like a different player out there, what he's done in practice,” LaCross said of Ejah. “There's just not a lot of guys like him. He's just a different athlete. He's so skilled and talented; when he plays hard, he can defend anyone on the floor. He runs faster than anybody, he jumps higher than anybody. He's just really worked on his game.”
The Cougars will also find minutes for Brayton Bailey, son of Indiana great Damon Bailey, as well as freshmen Zane Burke out of Blackhawk and Naylon Thompson from Bishop Luers.
The Saint Francis women, fresh off a sixth-place finish in the Crossroads League with an 8-9 conference record, return their top five scorers, including Cassidy Crawford (12.8 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Central Noble graduate Meleah Kunkel (9.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 51% shooting).
The Cougars will get a boost from incoming freshmen Emily Parrett of Carroll and Kaylee Fuelling of Norwell, who each led their teams to regional championships last season.
Lexi Shelton, who overcame a potentially career-ending spinal injury to earn an IBCA All-State Honorable Mention designation at Mt. Vernon last season, also joins the roster.