DECATUR — The players and coaches on Millikin’s men's basketball team have been globetrotters so far this season.
They opened the season at Finlandia University at the very top of the upper peninsula of Michigan with Canada nearly visible from the court.
They’ve already had games in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and near the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
And even with the travel challenges, the Big Blue’s play hasn’t been that far off from the famous Globetrotters. Millikin's 4-1 record already gives it more wins than all of last season.
Last year was a forgettable one for Millikin, which went 3-22 and won just one conference game. Coach Matt Nadelhoffer resigned at the conclusion of the season.
But the 2017-18 edition of the Big Blue has a fresh spark with a new coach and some new players who are bringing optimism to the season.
Millikin’s new coach patrolling the bench, Mark Scherer, is one that longtime fans may recognize.
Scherer steered the ship at CCIW rival Elmhurst College for 17 seasons before retiring in 2013.
His decision to retire was more of a personal one than a basketball decision.
“I’ve always loved coaching and during that period my son was very ill,” Scherer said. “He’s fine now but my son was having some health problems and I had had a great run so I decided to retire and step away from it.
“After I stepped away and you have a chance to catch a breather, you start thinking about things you might have done a little differently, you get rested up, and so that passion in me was rekindled when my son got healthy. I regained that passion to coach.”
And he has also always had an affinity for Millikin.
“I’ve always thought Millikin was a diamond in the rough,” he said. “The university shows big with our campus town and with 'The Woods' that extends campus and it shows really well. If we can get recruits to visit, a majority of them want to come to Millikin.”
In every modification Scherer makes to the Millikin program, he always has one eye on recruiting. He said he sees Millikin and Decatur as has having some advantages.
“Decatur has revitalized itself. I know it went through some tough times and I think it is certainly on the uptick,” he said. “We are the southernmost school in the CCIW. I think that gives us a great launching off point where some of the other teams in our league have trouble reaching out.
“There is a lot of good basketball around Decatur and Springfield on south and we should be able to outwork people in those areas because the other schools have to come too far.”
Scherer has the challenge of revitalizing the Big Blue's roster and has been happy with how his team has taken to the new game plan.
"I have been pleasantly surprised with how open the returners have been to a new way of doing things and to our new players," he said. "That’s hard for young men and I give them a lot of credit for being open to a new perspective, a new coaching style, and open to me. I don’t take that for granted and it’s a testament to their character and their strength."
One of those new players who has had a big impact his season has been forward Elijah Henry, who transferred to Millikin from Kirkwood Community College.
Henry, a 6-7 post player, has led Millikin in scoring this season, averaging 17 points.
"Elijah has been a great addition and he is a strong, back-to-the-basket post player with 17-foot range," Scherer said. "He plays hard all the time and is really easy to coach. He has a big motor and can really finish and rebound."
Although Henry has had the hot hand, Scherer has been playing nine players equally to get a feel for his team.
"We are playing nine guys with equal minutes so really I have nine starters right now," he said. "They are a group of nine and we could slip any of those guys into the starting lineup and not miss a beat. They truly are very equal in their abilities, we have a lot of guys who can step up on a given night and so those nine guys are in our rotation and we are going to go with who has the hot hand."
Henry said he liked the rotation and thinks it will make the Big Blue better.
"It gives everyone the opportunity to get the best shot on the court," he said. "Coach said he would play nine players and all nine players need to go hard every game because there are some situations where maybe I’ll be in foul trouble and another player needs to step up for me."
Henry said he feels the player rotation has helped the overall team dynamic.
"Our team chemistry is getting a lot better and we’ve got to work hard in practice and especially get along well with each other," he said. "If we keep doing that during the season, we will be all right."
Looking ahead to conference play, which begins Saturday at Wheaton, Millikin will play Scherer's old team, Elmhurst, on Dec. 6.
"That will be neat game. It won’t be as big a game as people might suspect because I’ve been out four years so all the players there that I recruited have passed on," he said. "But (Elmhurst coach) John Baines is like a brother to me. He was my assistant coach for 10 years and I had him in mind for the position when I left so that will be great for my first time coaching against him."
Although they are still in the "get to know each other" phase of the season, things are looking up for Millikin as the players learn from their new coach.
"He’s a good coach and he always wants us to play hard especially when the ball goes up to get those offensive rebounds," Henry said. "Before every game coach says, 'When the game starts, the war begins' and he wants us to go 100 percent all the time in practice and the game."