When Zach Toussaint arrived at West Texas A&M last season as a freshman, he discovered something on the basketball court that high school didn’t offer – open jump shots.
“In high school, I would get double-teamed or triple-teamed,” said Toussaint, a Johnsburg graduate. “In college, you get so many more open shots.”
Toussaint’s shooting prowess made him a valuable contributor as a freshman guard for the Buffs, who were 32-1 when COVID-19 ended their season only two days before NCAA Division II regionals were set to start.
“We were playing our best basketball,” said Toussaint, whose teammates scattered immediately after the season was called off. “Then all of a sudden, the next day, I was sitting at home doing nothing.”
West Texas A&M is less than two weeks away from the start of what likely will be a unique season, and Toussaint is more than ready.
“I’m most excited just to compete,” he said. “We haven’t competed against someone else in such a long time.”
Initially, Toussaint was faced with gyms being closed in McHenry County for much of the pandemic and no weightlifting equipment at home.
“My friend had a weight room in his garage, so I went and lifted every day in this hot garage,” he said. “My main focus was to put on muscle and get a lot stronger.”
Last season, Toussaint said his weight dipped to as low as 145 pounds during the season. Now, he’s hovering between 165 and 170.
“I already see in practice that it helps so much, to be able to stand your ground,” he said of the extra muscle.
Late in the summer when gyms reopened, Toussaint connected with local player development coach Zac Boster to sharpen his game.
“I think I’ll be able to create more (offense) for my team,” he said. “My defense has gotten a lot better too. Last year, I was kind of a liability on defense, to be honest.”
Toussaint’s 3-point shooting earned rave reviews last season. While averaging less than 18 minutes a game off the bench, he made 62 3-pointers, the second-highest total on the team. While connecting on 44% of his long-range shots, his 7.7 points a game ranked fifth for the Buffs.
He thrived despite missing a week with a broken hand last season.
Toussaint said he is also fully recovered from an October bout with the coronavirus.
“It took a toll on my body, but I’m all better,” he said of the five-day illness that made him very weak.
This season, he expects to make a bigger contribution on the court.
“I have a lot more confidence in handling the ball,” he said. “My teammates have more confidence in me.”
Toussaint said he expects to be more than a catch-and-shoot player and looks forward to adding more mid-range shots to his game and finding open teammates when he’s covered.
The Buffs are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 by a pair of national preseason polls ahead of their Dec. 11 season opener against 18th-ranked St. Edward’s.
This season’s schedule will feature West Texas A&M playing 10 of the other 17 schools in the Lone Star Conference. Teams will face each other on back-to-back nights – Fridays and Saturdays – through February before the conference tournament.
“Playing a team two days in a row – that’s really hard,” Toussaint said. “We’re going to really have to lock in.”
He pointed to a pair of examples last season in which beating the same team a second time proved difficult. The Buffs beat Eastern New Mexico, 93-78, at home last November before winning by five in January on the road. In January, West Texas A&M defeated Lubbock Christian at home by a 92-68 score. Three weeks later, the Buffs won by five in Lubbock.
No matter the opponent on the schedule, the abrupt end to last season has made the Buffs’ aim crystal clear.
“The only expectation is to win a national championship,” Toussaint said. “Last year, we felt like we should have been there.”
• Barry Bottino writes about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at email@example.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.