EDMONTON – The only rest Jesse Trussler received during a marathon session against the University of Alberta on Feb. 12 was during timeouts.
He never hit the bench once in the Saturday night Canada West men's basketball special at the Saville Centre, playing all 40 minutes for a MacEwan Griffins team so devastated by injuries, they only suited up eight guys and played just seven.
"It was tough," said Trussler. "I was exhausted. It's something I used to do in high school frequently.
"It was either I did that or we didn't play. I was happy to do it."
That says all you need to know about the veteran team leader who is all about the team first, all about doing whatever it takes for the squad to find success.
"Jesse works hard," said Griffins head coach Mike Connolly. "Jesse's starting to figure out his abilities and strengths and things he should do to help the team be successful.
"It comes down to his toughness," he added. "It shows that he's tough to play 40 minutes. He's in shape, he can play tough and go through it.
"I think for him, he's starting to realize he just needs to keep his game simple distributing the ball. What we really need from him is that leadership with the extra effort – putting in the work. Again, that 40 minutes is the sign of that character where he just keeps battling."
Trussler will lead the Griffins (0-14) into their final action of the 2021-22 regular season as they host Lethbridge (6-8) on Thursday (6 p.m.) and Friday (2 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).
The matches are rescheduled from Feb. 4-5, a series that had to be postponed because the Griffins didn't have the minimum eight players available to dress for the weekend.
The situation nearly occurred again against Alberta when the Griffins lost a couple of players to injuries in the first game of the series on Feb. 11, but they managed to get through the Saturday game by dressing manager Bradley Roslinski, who gained eligibility earlier in the week.
And by playing Trussler for the full 40.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Trussler, who played marathon minutes in high school at Regina's Campbell Collegiate because of his talent, not a short bench. "I've never been on a team with this many injuries."
Jesse Trussler looks for an opening during a game against Alberta earlier this season. He's been playing well of late, posting a career-high 17-point effort against the Golden Bears on Feb. 12 (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Thankfully, though, the Griffins are getting more players back every day. They were able to practice 5-on-5 for the first time in many weeks last Thursday, so they're the best prepared they've been for a weekend series in a long time.
"Now we can do more things," said Connolly. "You can actually run scrimmages. We were just doing 3 on 3, 4 on 4, so there's a lack of the whole concepts. Now, we're getting back to where we were."
Trussler has been a constant throughout the rocky road of the last few weeks. Connolly essentially called him the heartbeat of the team after last Saturday when they put up a good showing against Mount Royal University, despite losing 89-69.
"We see him diving after loose balls, we see him being a leader and we see him doing the little things that we've been missing all year, as far as accountability within the team," said the coach. "He's evolving in his leadership. He's starting to reap the rewards of having good performances and leading the team. Whenever we have a good team performance, like Saturday, it's usually because Jesse's playing well and doing the right things for the team."
One of just a handful of veterans on a young team that's building for the future, Trussler is trying his best to lead by example.
"First of all, I'd like to think I am," he said. "I like all the young guys, they're really good guys. I'm just trying to show them the way like the older guys showed me when it was my first couple years. I hope I'm setting an example and teaching them things they're going to be able to teach one day, too.
"It's really easy because they're a really receptive group of guys who just want to get better."
Connolly recalls a conversation with Trussler after MacEwan played Calgary on Jan. 29 where he produced just three points and one assist in 11 minutes.
"We had a chat after the Calgary weekend where he didn't feel he was very good," said the coach. "He didn't produce much. So, he just started focusing on some little things and the next thing you know against the U of A, he's our hardest worker, he's out there battling and shooting a good percentage. The same thing (happened) last weekend."
That led to him scoring a career-high 17 points against Alberta on Feb. 12 and continuing to roll, much like the Griffins are starting to gain steam.
Whether or not the young squad can finally realize their first win of 2021-22 remains to be seen, but there is no doubt they are peaking just in time for playoffs.
"I think it's kind of a blessing in disguise that the games were cancelled a few weeks ago when we were supposed to play Lethbridge because it's nice to be playing a competitive team like the Pronghorns right before the playoff run rather than taking a bye week," said Trussler. "I think this is going to be a really good final test before heading into that."
Following the Lethbridge series, MacEwan will play an opening round playoff match against a yet-to-be-determined opponent on March 3.