As they say, you're either getting worse or you're getting better. There's no question which direction LaVontay Fenderson is heading.
The UW-Parkside senior forward has progressed steadily from his redshirt season of 2004-05 to averaging 25.7 points through the Rangers' first 14 games this winter, which placed him second in NCAA Division II as the only non-guard among the top eight scorers in the nation.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pounder has grown on and off the court since playing for Coach Bob Letsch's topnotch program at Racine St. Catherine's High School, where he averaged 15 points, six rebounds and four assists while earning honorable mention all-state honors as a senior.
UW-Parkside coach Luke Reigel, who's in his sixth year in charge after three seasons as an assistant, has enjoyed watching Fenderson's maturation.
"The biggest improvement LaVontay's made since he got here is just understanding the value of practicing at a high level every day, and that's something a lot of young guys have to learn," said Reigel, whose Rangers have registered winning records the past three seasons after not finishing above .500 for 16 years. "Many of them got by on their natural abilities in high school, but in college they learn quickly that they have to bring it to every practice and game to reach their full potential. In LaVontay's case, he rarely, if ever, has bad practices anymore and that carries over into the games."
In addition to his offensive prowess, Fenderson has averaged more than five boards and nearly four assists per contest while also assuming much more of a leadership role after such players as former AAU teammates Kyle Clark of Kenosha St. Joseph's and Brad Ferstenou of Burlington graduated.
"Last year there were a lot of guys his age or older, so LaVontay didn't feel comfortable in taking that role, that it wasn't ‘his' team," said Reigel, who won a state title while playing at Wilmot High School under his father, Tom, and earned national titles as a player and assistant for Bo Ryan at UW-Platteville. "But he assumed that responsibility right away this year because he's much more confident. The young guys see his intensity and hopefully that rubs off."
The soft-spoken Fenderson, who was an avid bowler in his younger days, takes that task and his performance seriously.
"I know that I have to be ready to go every night," Fenderson said. "I try to be the leader and show my teammates by example. I want to get the guys fired up and going every game."
Fenderson admits that wasn't always the case early in his collegiate career, but he's improved tremendously in all aspects, and part of the credit goes to his brother LaQuan, a sophomore cross country runner at Parkside.
"I got stronger, quicker and lost a lot of weight during my redshirt year," the criminal justice major said. "I watched a lot of games and learned things and how quick the game is."
He then averaged 9.1 ppg while getting his feet wet in 2005-06 while also overcoming the adversity of missing seven games because of an arch injury in his left foot.
"I was happy because I love to compete," he said. "But it was more of a relief to finally get out on the floor after all of the practices."
That carried over as he improved his output to 16.3 as a sophomore and took his conditioning routine to a higher level.
"I knew I had to get into better shape, and my brother is the one who pushed me very hard because I ran and worked out with him almost every day," Fenderson said.
He finished fifth in the Great Lakes Valley Conference with a 15.2 average and surpassed the 1,100-point scoring plateau, but Fenderson rededicated himself again because he wasn't happy with last year's results.
"I felt like I had a down season," he said. "I worked hard, but I didn't shoot very well and suffered nagging injuries with the same foot and teams concentrated on me more. But that's why it was a good experience for me.
"So I kept running with my brother and tried to play every day in getting ready for this season," Fenderson said. "This is my last year and I wanted to be ready every night."
Not even he can argue with the results this season, which featured his career-best 44-point outing Dec. 15. He exploded for 32 points in the second half as the Rangers rallied from a 27-point deficit in the final 11:30 to down visiting Indiana-Northwest, 91-88. Fenderson drained the deciding trey from the top of the key with 1.1 seconds left.
Reigel said that Fenderson's talents are unmistakable.
"LaVontay had the best off-season of his life and it's shown because he plays 34 or 35 minutes for us every game," Reigel said. "I see him as the D-II version of Dwayne Wade. He can play point and shooting guard and can lead our fast break, but he's most comfortable on the wing. He has a nice mid-range jump shot and makes enough three-pointers to keep defenders honest, but he's best when he's attacking the basket and that makes it tough for people to stay with him."
For his part, Fenderson insists that he hasn't arrive yet, especially because he'd like to continue his hoops dream, even if it means playing overseas.
"I've improved a lot in coming off screens, with my dribbling and learning the game better, but I'd give myself a B or B+ so far," Fenderson said. "I want to keep working hard, and I'd definitely love to play professionally somewhere."