By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — There were 259 days between St. Francis' loss to Flint Beecher in the Class C state title game last spring to the start of this basketball season.
That was 259 days for current Gladiator seniors Kody Kleinrichert and Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi to hear all of the doubts. People telling them the team would be in for a down year with the loss of center Sean Sheldon and point guard Devin Sheehy-Guiseppi to graduation.
It was also 259 days for the pair to work. And work hard.
"I put up shots in the gym and Kody and I started running," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "We took an initiative to get a lifting program going, and then we went to the track and started running more. It was anything we could do to get ready for the next level."
"I really looked forward to this season," Kleinrichert said. "I had multiple conversations with Damon about how we were going to have to be the ones to step up and replace Sean and Devin. Really, we had to take our team to the next level and keep us on top."
Have they ever. St. Francis is off to an 11-0 start and was ranked third in the first Associated Press Class C poll last week. While a number of players have made significant contributions to the Gladiators' success thus far, Kleinrichert and Sheehy-Guiseppi have led the charge in their final season.
"I think from a year ago, those two guys more than anybody knew it was going to come down to their improvement," St. Francis coach Keith Haske said. "We've had to kick them out of the gym because they weren't supposed to be in here. If you saw them last year to this year, it's pretty evident how much work they've put in, because their improvement is just huge. And obviously the better they are, the better we are."
While multiple-sport athletes are common at St. Francis, Kleinrichert and Sheehy-Guiseppi chose to focus solely on basketball. That gave them plenty of time to play AAU and pick-up games while working on getting bigger and faster with TC Central strength and conditioning coach Doug Gle.
"They had me listed at 205 (pounds) last year, but I was probably only 195," the 6-foot-7 Kleinrichert said. "Last time I weighed in, I was about 210. It helped a ton. It's a lot easier down low with finishes and everything. The game almost goes into slow motion now. I don't have to worry about it getting smacked out of my hands. I don't have to worry about getting moved around."
The off-season work already paid off in one sense for Kleinrichert, who was offered this fall and verbally accepted to play basketball for St. Xavier University in Chicago. He'll be the second straight big man from St. Francis to play at the next level, as Sheldon is in his freshman year at William & Mary.
"Part of the reason I'm as good as I am today is because of Sean," Kleinrichert said. "Playing against him all of those years made me a lot better player. Honestly, if I didn't have Sean to look up to, I wouldn't be playing college basketball. But seeing his work ethic and what he put in and got out of the game inspired me to do what I've done with it."
For Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, moving into the starting lineup this year meant taking the spot his older brother held for the last couple of years.
"It was nerve-racking, because he (Devin) and Sean led it pretty hard," Sheehy-Guiseppi said. "It was a lot of pressure, but we've had a good season so far. I want to see if we can keep it going."
"I told Damon that his first eight games may be the best eight games I've had a point guard string together in a long, long time," Haske said. "Hopefully he can stay at that level."
Kleinrichert is averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds a game, while Sheehy-Guiseppi is averaging 10 points, 8 assists and 4 steals.
With both Kleinrichert and Sheehy-Guiseppi being seniors, this will be their last run. And no matter how far the run goes, the Gladiators will be looking for players to step into their roles next season.
"I'm already talking to my juniors," Haske said. "Some of them aren't playing a lot, but you want to make sure they're in here working hard. I think the mark of a good program is when that happens. You have juniors come in and maybe they have to pay their dues, but as seniors they step up. If you look at really good programs, high school or college, that's what happens. We're hoping they're stepping stones to good things in the future."