The 2021-2022 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjack squad came into their first season of WAC play with high hopes and big goals. After all, Head Coach Kyle Keller was able to get all three of Gavin Kensmil, Roti Ware and David Kachelries to return for a “super-senior” season. A year with ups and downs, extreme emotions, and a clear turning point that we will get to shortly.
Stephen F. Austin started the season with two non-D1 opponents on the schedule. And put out lackluster performances that brought concern to many of the Lumberjack faithful. Especially with a very good South Dakota State (30-5) team about to make a trip to the Piney Woods.
The Jackrabbits had no issues in The Sawmill behind a dominant performance from Noah Freidel. With three big time Mid-Major match-ups coming up in the Cancun Challenge, the 2021-2022 season for the Lumberjacks was off to a somewhat rocky start.
The aforementioned “super-seniors” had been fairly quiet in their first few games. Ware, Kensmil, and Kachelries then combined for 48 points to lead SFA to a game 1 win over Middle Tennessee State (26-11). The trio followed that up with 47 points in a thrilling 79-78 win over Buffalo (19-11). The Lumberjacks ran out of gas late against Saint Louis (23-12) to close out the Cancun Challenge. But a very positive 3-game tournament brought life to the 2021-22 season.
Impressive Win, Big Loss
SFA rolled on to three more consecutive wins. And were set to square off against Liberty (22-11) on Dec. 11 in Fort Worth. The Flames had thrashed Missouri out of the SEC a week earlier.
A determined Lumberjack defense stifled the Flames to just 32 percent shooting. Behind this defensive effort, SFA rolled to an impressive double digit win.
But the win came along with a very dark cloud. Midway through the first half, Roti Ware took a hard foul and fell awkwardly. Lumberjack fans inside Dickies Arena fell quiet as Ware was taken back to the locker room. Unfortunately, the team leader suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Even Uglier Loss
Perhaps still in shock as a team, the Lumberjacks came out flat against Louisiana Monroe. And in Johnson Coliseum, took an ugly loss to a Warhawk team that finished the season at 13-18.
Not exactly the performance anyone would hope for. Especially knowing a trip to Allen Fieldhouse was on the schedule just four days later.
Another Power 6 Upset Opportunity
This is where the season really gets interesting for Stephen F. Austin.
The Lumberjacks historically perform well as underdogs against the giants of college basketball. And they did once again in front of 16,000 Kansas fans inside Allen Fieldhouse.
SFA shot 53 percent from the field for the game. Including an incredible 60.7 percent in the second half that nearly gave them another monumental program upset.
An 80-72 loss in the end. But going toe to toe with the eventual National Champions seemed to be what the Lumberjacks needed as they prepared for WAC play.
First Season in the WAC
Stephen F. Austin saw their next three scheduled games cancelled due to COVID. But soon started conference play with an impressive road win at Abilene Christian.
However, the month of January proved to be a difficult time for Keller and the Lumberjacks. Still trying to figure out how to play without Ware, they were relying on newcomers like Jaylin Jackson-Posey, Sadaidriene Hall, and Latrell Jossell.
All very talented, but inexperienced. Coupled with constant injuries to junior Nigel Hawkins, the Lumberjacks couldn’t find any consistency in anyone other than WAC Player of the Year candidate Gavin Kensmil.
It was an up and down month to say the least. Losses to Tarleton State and Sam Houston, a blow out win over Grand Canyon, mixed with a rusty performance against New Mexico State.
At 4-3, SFA was facing a tough trip to the West Coast, where they seemingly always have travel issues. After a late night arrival to Seattle, the Lumberjacks put out a lethargic performance the next day, dropping a 70-62 contest to the Redhawks.
At 4-4, they now had to travel south to face California Baptist. This would be the turning point for the Stephen F. Austin season.
Having a tough month themselves, the Lancers came out energized and opened up an early 10-point lead. But this night belonged to Gavin Kensmil, the “super-senior” who recently signed to play professionally in France.
Gavin Kensmil, @SFA_MBB alumni from Surinam, joins #RomaiorSports.
Welcome aboard @gavin_gkd! pic.twitter.com/8UA4Z2CFM3
— RomaiorSports (@RomaiorSports) April 19, 2022
Kensmil finished the night 14 of 19 from the floor, and a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line. 37 points, 5 rebounds, and exactly what the Lumberjacks needed in a 81-77 win.
SFA followed with a run that included a 21-point win over Fardaws Aimaq and Utah Valley, a wild victory over rival Sam Houston, a buzzer beater against Abilene Christian, and a massive road win at New Mexico State. In all, a 10-game win streak that gave the Lumberjacks a share of the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship.
Short Trip to WAC Vegas
Momentum and excitement was high throughout the program and AxeEm Nation. However, that was short lived in their trip to Las Vegas for the WAC Tournament Championship.
Facing off against Abilene Christian, the Wildcats came out determined to not lose a third time to SFA. The Lumberjacks shot just 35 percent from the field, turned the ball over 22 times, and the final whistle ended their shot to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
A 2021-2022 Stephen F. Austin season that could be summed up in all sorts of ways.
Wild. Jekyll and Hyde. Exciting. Frustrating. But definitely successful.
A 22-10 overall finish with a share of a conference title was a terrific starting point for the Lumberjacks in their new conference. Kyle Keller had big shoes to fill in the offseason, and he may have created his deepest team yet. Perhaps his best?