Showing strength

At this time last year, Evan Henry and Bryce Lienhoop were entering the stretch run of their senior high school basketball seasons.

Now, the Columbus natives are playing key roles as freshmen on a University of St. Francis team that has designs on conference and national championships.

The Cougars defeated No. 20 Grace College on Saturday to improve to 20-6. St. Francis is ranked No. 13 in NAIA Division II.

“They’re both putting in big minutes for us and doing great things on both ends,” St. Francis coach Chad LaCross said. “Looking at our team from last year and coming into this year, we thought both of them would have big roles for us. We thought a lot of both them just recruiting them.”

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Henry at Columbus North and Lienhoop at Columbus East were four-year varsity players who helped their schools achieve a level of success they hadn’t seen in several years prior to their arrival. Now, they’re trying to take a St. Francis team that has won at least 20 games four of the past five years to the next level.

Both Henry and Lienhoop have played in every game for the Cougars. Henry has started 13 games and averages 27.5 minutes, the second-most on the team. Lienhoop has started five games, averaging 19.1 minutes.

“Right now, they’re coming off the bench for us, but they both could be starters for our team,” Lienhoop said. “Evan isn’t starting, but he played starter minutes. Bryce is basically our first big man off the bench and playing big minutes, as well.”

After playing point guard his final two years of high school, Henry is back at his more familiar shooting guard position for the Cougars.

“It wasn’t much of an adjustment needed because that’s what I played for AAU,” Henry said. “It was just a matter of switching a couple of things around. That’s what I grew up playing, so I was a lot more used to playing shooting guard than point guard.”

Henry ranks fifth on the team with 10.0 points a game and second with 1.1 steals. He also averages 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists.

“I think I’m playing my role pretty well,” Henry said. “I have great teammates around me, and they always put me in good positions. I think over the summer, I put in the work to be able to put myself in these type of positions.”

“He’s always working on his game to get better, whether it’s in the weight room or getting shots up,” LaCross said. “He’s somebody that we’re going to offensively, and he can stretch the floor for us. The other thing, he’s a very good defender. He plays with a lot of confidence. He’s one of the better competitors that we have on the team.”

Lienhoop ranks sixth on the team with 8.6 points and third with 5.7 rebounds.

“I’ve improved a lot on my post game and my defensive rebounding and defending,” Lienhoop said. “The speed at which the game is played is a lot faster than what it was in high school. Every night, there’s going to be a guy as big, if not bigger than you are, so you have to be sharp in your decision making.”

“I think his understanding of the game is outstanding,” LaCross said. “He sees things that other guys on the floor don’t. Bryce is such a great rebounder and has great footwork. The one thing Bryce has really worked on is being physical. He’s a lot stronger and playing with a lot more confidence defensively. He has a knack for the game inside. He reads things and plays with a lot of maturity.”

St. Francis will add another Columbus player next year when East’s Connor Umphress joins the Cougars.

“I think Connor could be another big piece for us,” Lienhoop said. “He can provide a lot of outside and inside scoring.”

With four games left in the regular season, St. Francis is two games behind No. 1-ranked Indiana Wesleyan. The Cougars had a chance to tie to Wildcats for first place in the Crossroads League Jan. 31, but Indiana Wesleyan rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and hit a last-second shot to hand St. Francis a 76-75 loss.

“Indiana Wesleyan has won (the CL) the past five or six years, so we’d like to take that,” Lienhoop said. “Hopefully, we’ll win the rest of our conference games so we can win or tie for first. Hopefully, we can win a league championship and a national championship.”

“We have those same goals like every other team,” Henry said. “We want to make a statement in the tournament. We know what we can accomplish, so anything less than that is kind of a disappointment.”

St. Francis, which bounced back Tuesday with a 77-68 win over No. 7 Bethel. The Cougars could get another shot at Indiana Wesleyan in the Crossroads League Tournament, and possibly in the 32-team NAIA Division II tourney in Branson, Missouri.

“I just think we’re playing at a pretty high level right now,” LaCross said. “The guys are focused on what we’re doing and playing pretty confident.”

The Columbus Connection

Name: Evan Henry

High school: Columbus North

Year: Freshman

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 175

Position: Guard

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Name: Bryce Lienhoop

High school: Columbus East

Year: Freshman

Height: 6-foot-6

Weight: 225

Position: Forward

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Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.