For a few seasons now, Steve Schulman has had his Lehman College men’s basketball program on the cusp of claiming its first City University of New York Athletic Conference championship in more than a decade.
There have been six trips to the conference semifinals in the past seven seasons, yet none have produced anything for the Lightning’s dusty trophy case. The past two seasons have been perhaps the most exasperating as they have included an excruciating two-point loss to CCNY in the semifinals two seasons ago followed by an agonizing two-point defeat to Staten Island in the championship game last year.
It was a disheartening ending to a season that saw Lehman post 22 overall victories and go 15-1 in league play.
Time and again, Schulman has been forced to keep the celebratory champagne on ice instead of raising a glass or three on at least one occasion.
This season, however, the only thing that might be raised is the degree of difficulty of Lehman reaching the CUNYAC title game as Schulman’s roster has gone from a who’s who of talent to a “Who are you?” group of newcomers.
Yes, the Lightning will need to print a plethora of programs for its home games this season as Schulman deals with more departures than the Red Wedding episode of “Game of Thrones.”
“I’ve had turnover on the roster before, but what makes this situation unique is we don’t have one established player returning,” said Schulman, who is in his 19th season as Lehman head coach. “I’ve had other years where I’ve had a lot of new players, but I always had one or two core guys who have been back. Now I don’t have one player back who played even 15 minutes a game for us last season.”
The Lightning’s remodeled roster contains 10 new faces and just five players from last year’s team. Just one — sophomore forward Miguel Haboosh — is the only one who saw any real playing time.
“It’s been fun, but it’s also been a challenge,” said Schulman, who owns 277 career wins with the Lightning. “It feels like I have to go back to Coaching 101. I don’t know how many times I had to stop myself, and I say to the team, ‘I apologize. I took for granted that you guys would know what I was talking about.’
“I just have to slow down with this group.”
But Schulman cautions that a new roster doesn’t necessarily mean a weak one.
“It’s not completely a talent issue with us,” he said. “The talent we have is pretty good. It’s just a matter of learning, improving and getting a little bit of chemistry going. That will be the biggest challenge.”
While two returners, Haboosh and Fred Truss, are helping take up the scoring slack so far this season as they average 13 and 11 points per game, respectively, one of the newcomers Schulman is high on is sophomore Isaiah Geathers. He is currently leading the team in scoring at 16.3 points an outing.
“He had 25 points in our last game, Schulman said, of the 81-65 victory over Clark University.
Joining him is a player with even a stronger local tie, former Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy standout Will Feldman.
“Will is starting for us at point (guard) and is just getting better in each and every game,” the coach said. “He’s got that little bit of moxie that’s good for the team.”
Another player Schulman is expecting big things from is 5-foot-9 guard Jaquan Strong, who is filling up the stat sheet with averages of 10 points, five rebounds and four assists per game.
“He’s from Dutchess Community College and he had 17 points in his last game,” Schulman said. “He’s just going to get better as the year goes on.”
As one can see, Schulman thinks his cupboard is far from bare, and maybe with a little seasoning, this fresh-faced group of Lightning players just may surprise in the CUNYAC this season.
“I see Staten Island and Baruch being maybe a step above most of us in the league,” said Schulman, whose team was picked sixth in the CUNYAC preseason poll. “But right after that, the gap is small. My thing is if we just continue to be positive and understand where we are and where we got to get to, I think by the middle of January we can definitely be a player come tournament time.”
And maybe make another run at their first CUNYAC championship since 2004.
“I like this class,” Schulman said. “We may need some time, but these guys have talent. But we’ll get there, definitely.”