BOWLING GREEN - Last winter was not a particularly joyful time in Matt Lefeld's life.
Lefeld, the 6-foot-11 starting center for Bowling Green State University, had such excruciating foot pain from bone bruises it hurt to walk, let alone practice. He didn't practice by the time Mid-American Conference play rolled around, but he limped up and down the floor for all but one of the Falcons' games last year.
The final 11 contests, Lefeld was never able to play more than 22 minutes, crippling a depth-deprived front court. The Falcons finished 1-10 in those games.
As the losses increased, team unity disintegrated. It hurt Lefeld, perhaps even more than his feet, to see a team he had been a part of for three years break apart.
"There were guys last year, you didn't want to say stuff around certain people," Lefeld said. "It was always kind of cliquey. People had their own agendas."
One scholarship player left before the season ended and two more departed over the summer. Lefeld, one of two seniors and three returning starters, has seen signs from the current squad that hint he will be able to forget about the painful winter. BGSU opens its season next Saturday against Denison.
"I think our biggest goal is keeping everybody on one agenda, practicing hard and winning games," Lefeld said. "That's all everybody's thinking about here.
"We've had so much stuff in the past with nitpicky, complaining, whining stuff. Just people whining all the time. I think we really got rid of a lot of those whiners, babies, whatever you want to call them."
Lefeld and his coaches have changed a few things to give him a better chance to finish the season at a more productive pace this year despite his foot troubles. He's using new orthotic inserts in his size 17 shoes. His practice schedule is a few days on, a few days off.
The team also hopes the new regimen will allow Lefeld to improve on his numbers from last year, seven points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
"We're going to count on him to do a lot," BGSU coach Dan Dakich said.
"Whether or not he's capable of it remains to be seen. But it's been encouraging to this point because he's been able to practice far more than he was toward the end of last year.
"We have to be careful to make sure that we don't get him to the point that he can't practice by the end of the year. The less we do now, the more we'll be able to do later."
Even the practice he does get in is helping. Lefeld, from Coldwater, Ohio, credits an improved shot fake to freshman center Otis Polk's defense in practice, saying, "If I just throw something up he's going to throw it back down in my face." Lefeld is also confident that if his feet cause him to miss time at some point, there are capable backups.
"I'm excited because we've got some really good size and guys that can move around," Lefeld said. "Otis, and Nate Miller too, he can get in there and wear some guys out instead of me trying to wear them out all the time."
NOTES: Freshman center Marc Larson has missed nearly two weeks of practice with pneumonia. It's not clear when he will return. The Falcons play a closed scrimmage against IPFW today. They host Capital in an exhibition game on Wednesday night at Anderson Arena.
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