Seniors are Zips' new identity

“The University of Akron’s men’s basketball team began a new era of play when it opened the 2007 season winning five of its first six games. This year’s squad has a different look than it has in recent history. Three-year starters and team-leaders Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis completed their eligibility in the 2006-07 season.”

The University of Akron’s men’s basketball team began a new era of play when it opened the 2007 season winning five of its first six games.

This year’s squad has a different look than it has in recent history. Three-year starters and team-leaders Dru Joyce and Romeo Travis completed their eligibility in the 2006-07 season.

Joyce and Travis joined with UA head coach Keith Dambrot to begin a winning tradition at UA that had been missing in the team’s recent past.

The two starting seniors led the Zips to a 26-7 record and an appearance in the 2007 Mid-American Conference Championship game last season.

During their time at UA, the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s graduates’ friendship with high school teammate and NBA star LeBron James was frequently discussed by local and national media. Dambrot also coached the trio in high school before becoming an assistant coach at UA in 2001.

This year, UA’s six-man senior class is looking to build off last season’s success while putting their own stamp on the program.

Seniors Jeremiah Wood, Nick Dials, Cedrick Middleton and Quade Milum were all fixtures in Dambrot’s rotation last season and will be counted on to play even more prominent roles this season. Wood, Dials and Middleton were named Preseason All-MAC selections before the start of the season.

Dambrot said that he sees similarities between the circumstances surrounding this year’s seniors and the situation that Joyce and Travis faced when they first stepped on UA’s campus and looked to step outside the shadow of their larger-than-life childhood friend.

I think it’s very similar to how Rome and Dru first started, the Zips’ fourth-year head coach said. They started off as LeBron’s understudies and then they kind of formed their own program here. I think guys like Cedrick Middleton, Nick Dials, Jeremiah Wood and Quade (Milum) are excited to have their year of trying to see what they can do with the program.

Wood admitted that while a team never wants to lose two players of the caliber of Joyce and Travis, he and the rest of the seniors are prepared to move on without them and proving that the team’s still one of the best in the Mid-American Conference.

We miss them because they were good players, but it’ll be good to see how we’re gonna be without them, Wood said. Everybody knows they have to step up. A lot of the seniors have the opportunity to show what they’ve got on the court without Dru and Rome.

Dials said that the Zips are focused on giving maximum effort every time they step on the floor, and expect to continue their winning ways from the past two seasons.

A common theme on our team is no regrets, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound guard said. As long as we play hard every possession, every game, I think we can go on saying we have no regrets.

There’s not a game on our schedule we can’t win. If we play hard and play together, more than likely will have another 20-plus win season. Really, that’s what we’re aiming for.

Wood, an Akron native, acknowledged that UA’s basketball program has benefited from its peripheral connections with one of the most recognizable faces in the sport around the world today, but is excited for the team to make a name for itself, simply as UA’s basketball team.

I think that helped us earlier in our careers – (Coach Dambrot) knowing LeBron and them playing with LeBron as teammates, but now it’s kind of time to establish this program just for Akron U., the MAC Player-of-the-Year candidate said. This is our city, this is our team. It’s not LeBron’s team, there’s no LeBron teammates – it’s just Akron U. basketball.

Dials pointed out the fact that while the team has capitalized on the upsurge in publicity in recent years, the only reason that the team has received any notoriety is the success that they’ve experienced on the court.

Connections can only get you so far, he said. Connections aren’t really the whole story. We have to win and that’s what we’re doing here. That’s what we’ve started here for the last two or three years.

We’re trying to start a winning tradition, and hopefully that will carry on to this year and the years following.

Dambrot said that the team’s affiliation with James has helped the program immensely and, therefore, he never wants to lose that link with the global icon, but does agree with his seniors that the team is more than capable of making a name for itself.

The one thing that I never want to lose is the LeBron connection, because the LeBron connection helps us get better players, Dambrot said. I’m not ever going to apologize for being connected to one of the greatest players ever. But by the same token, we’re capable of standing on our own two feet and being The University of Akron, not LeBron University.

When asked to discuss some of the best qualities of this year’s senior leaders, Dambrot mentioned the unique basketball histories of each player, and how those individual experiences will provide a solid base for the team.

When you first talk about Cedrick Middleton, you’re talking about a guy that has an unbelievable work ethic, maybe the hardest working guy I’ve ever had in all the years I’ve coached, he said. Then you’ve got Nick Dials who is one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached. You have two guys there that are really leaders by example.

Then you’ve got Jeremiah Wood who’s overcome a lot of adversity and become one of the best players in the league. Quade Milum is a guy that doesn’t say two words, but he’s done a lot of good things in the program.

While Middleton has been playing through a knee injury earlier this season, both Wood and Dials are the healthiest they’ve been since suffering serious knee injuries in previous seasons.

Wood suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament 10 games into the 2004-05 season. Dials had surgery on his torn left ACL the June before the start of his redshirt sophomore season in 2005-06, but still managed to play in 33 games that year.

Wood lost about 15 pounds in the offseason and plans to play at around 250 pounds. He said that this is the best he’s ever felt in his career.

I’m jumping a lot higher, dunking, blocking shots (and) rebounding better, Wood said. It’s just a whole new me – the real Wood.

Wood appreciates the challenge of being counted on to be one of the team’s leaders – both on and off the court – for the first time in his UA career, and said that one of his goals for the season is setting the tone for the rest of the team.

It’s a lot of responsibility, which I’ve never really had, Wood said. I’ve just got to stay focused mentally and have no mental breakdowns, and just be alright with whatever happens. Being one of the leaders on the team, I just want to be able to keep my mental focus.

The Zips and their slew of sensational seniors travel to Rock Hills, S.C. to play Winthrop tomorrow.

” #1.1361433:1604848212.jpg:20071204_Wood.jpg:Jermiah Wood, along with six other seniors, are making their mark on the new season.:BUCHTELITE FILE PHOTO”