ALLIANCE One year ago, Tommy Stenger wasn’t even on the varsity roster for the Mount Union Purple Raiders.
The Hoover product was working off the radar, doing what he could to earn a place with the Raiders. A senior-dominated team was having another successful run, leaving few spots for newcomers. But when those 10 seniors left the program at the end of the season, it created plenty of chances.
“My freshman season, not even playing varsity, I wanted to come back this season and show what I could do,” Stenger said. “Knowing what I had to do watching last year, I spent the summer working with my dad to get better.”
Working with his father, Tom, helped the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard improve his all-around game with with open roster spots to be had, Stenger successfully made the jump to the varsity roster.
Mount Union’s 7-2 start to the season has been marred only by a pair of losses by a combined three points, with the offense humming along to the tune of 81.3 points a game. The Purple Raiders have relied heavily on the 3-pointer, hoisting nearly 24 shots a game from beyond the arc.
Despite coming off the bench, Stenger is tied for third on the team in scoring at 8.7 points per game. The player with whom he shares that third spot, ironically, is a player who starred for his biggest rival in high school. Miles Griffin, a junior forward from Jackson, is a player Stenger knew about long before enrolling at Mount Union.
“It’s really cool and coach (Mike) Fuline is from Jackson as well,” Stenger said. “When I was younger, I remember watching Miles and he was one of the big, tough players who was really good for Jackson.”
Stenger still gets the occasional joke from his coach about being on opposing sides of the Jackson-Hoover rivalry, but for the most part, the focus is on their current status as members of the Mount Union program. Stenger’s contributions in a reserve role have helped the offense continue to produce when stars DeAllen Jackson and J.J. Kukura go to the bench.
At 57.1 percent from deep, Stenger’s shooting has been one of the areas of his game most improved by his offseason. Making his production more impressive is the fact that he’s doing his scoring in 14 minutes per game.
“Really, my role is just coming off the bench when our starters need a break, making sure there’s no drop-off,” Stenger said.
Despite not playing on the varsity team last season, Stenger was able to work toward his degree in business management. His ultimate goal is to own his own business some day, a dream that dates back to his time at Hoover. The campus atmosphere at Mount Union has been a welcoming one as well, in part due to the many fellow student-athletes he encounters on campus.
It’s a campus used to athletic success, with the football team a perennial national title contender in Division III. But the basketball team has made its own mark in recent seasons, winning 42 games combined the past two years and reaching the third round of the NCAA tournament in 2015.
Sustaining that level of success is on the minds of the current edition of the Raiders, who feature 12 players from Stark and Summit counties.
“I feel like we’ve started off the season strong and we know how good we can be this season,” Stenger said. “It’s a lot to live up to, but we know we can do it.”
Given the jump his own game made between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Stenger’s high hopes for his team don’t seem out of reach. A 3-1 Ohio Athletic Conference record so far this season has Mount Union on track for another strong postseason run, one in which Stenger and his fellow reserves expect to play a key role. The conference schedule runs through Feb. 18, when the Raiders play a road game at Otterbein, after which the OAC tournament will decide which team the conference sends on to the postseason.
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB