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Vermont’s NCAA Journey

March 20, 2003 Columns No Comments





Brennan and Sheftic lead Vermont to the NCAA’s

by Phil Kasiecki

Tom Brennan almost walked away just prior to last season. Matt Sheftic had already done just that.

Every NCAA Tournament has its stories, but if there’s an unlikely presence in the NCAA Tournament this season, it would be Brennan, the head coach of Vermont, and Sheftic, the junior post player who led the Catamounts to their first NCAA Tournament bid after 103 years of basketball. Vermont’s appearance in the tournament could be a story just with the Catamounts having 10.5 basketball scholarships in addition to their long history without an NCAA bid prior to this. But there is even more that makes this a special story.

A character who is never at a loss for words or self-deprecating humor, Brennan is the dean of America East coaches, currently in his 17th season. Looking at his record year-by-year, one might wonder how he made it this far; he started out his career 42-88 in his first five seasons, and the Catamounts continued to languish in the depths of the conference from the days when it was still the ECAC and then the North Atlantic Conference.

Once Brennan made it to the late 1990s, the success started to come. In 1997-98, Vermont tied for its highest finish in the conference, finishing third after leading for part of the season and going 16-11. Two years later, they matched the 11-7 conference record and went 16-12, and last season won a school-record 21 games before losing in the America East semifinals, eventually getting snubbed by the NIT. They swept the postseason awards, as sophomore guard T.J. Sorrentine was the conference’s Player of the Year, Taylor Coppenrath won Rookie of the Year, and Brennan was named Coach of the Year for the third time.

This season, the Catamounts figured to contend again despite losing the top rebounder in America East in Trevor Gaines (also one of just two players in the conference last year to average a double-double). But things looked bleak early, as Sorrentine suffered injuries to both wrists in an early practice. Eventually, his right wrist did not heal enough, and the Catamounts decided to redshirt him.

Without their point guard and top player, the Catamounts started slowly, losing six straight games to start 3-6. Then the new year came, along with America East play, and they got on a roll. They won their first three as part of a five-game winning streak, and would go on to finish second in the conference in the regular season before their run in the America East Tournament. Sheftic, the team’s second-leading scorer, had 23 points in the championship game and 22 points on 10-10 shooting in the quarterfinals against Albany, en route to being named the Reggie Lewis Most Outstanding Player for the tournament.

But all of this came more than a year after both Brennan and Sheftic nearly walked away from it all.

Sheftic not only quit the team, but left the university a month and a half before the 2001-02 season began. His younger sister suffered a brain aneurysm in January 2001, and eventually passed away in December of that year. All the while, basketball became a burden for the native of Essex Junction, even though it was a game he grew up with.

But now he’s back, and the America East Conference found out quickly. Anchoring the biggest front line in America East, Sheftic enters the NCAA Tournament averaging 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, scoring 52 points in three games in Boston to get the Catamounts here. Brennan certainly hasn’t lost sight of what Sheftic has done.

“Sheftic, in the last month, has been unbelievable,” he said last weekend. “He’s really been a key guy for us, he’s one of the main reasons that we’ve played so well, because after a year off from the team, it all seems to be coming together for him and he really seems to be finding himself.”

For good measure, Brennan was ready to retire just before last season. Always an upbeat man and the co-host of the popular “Corm and the Coach” morning radio show, it wasn’t the same for him, but he felt he owed it to his players to stay. If there’s anyone who is all the better for that decision, it sounds like Brennan himself when he talks about the team.

“Reality of it is, these guys are all great students, they’re all good people, they all really care about each other,” he said of his players. “It just starts at the top, it starts with Coppenrath, and T.J. (Sorrentine) too. T.J. was so devastated by having to sit out, it really, really hurt him, and yet I hear him the other day just saying, ‘I’m just so glad the team did well’, and I know he really believes that.

“I never expected that we could do this, never, and I’m the most optimistic guy in the world. But to do what we’ve done, is just a tremendous credit to those kids, because they did it, they made it happen.”

The players have certainly proven themselves in the classroom. In 2001-02, the team posted a 3.01 GPA, tops among America East programs. Seven of the 12 players earned a spot on the America East Academic Honor Roll, with five reaching the Commissioner’s Honor Roll (3.50 GPA or better).

Brennan also knows he got more of a chance than many get in this business. His patience, as well as that of the university, is now being rewarded. The Catamounts never won 20 or more games in their first 103 seasons, but have won 21 games in each of the last two seasons. If anything, the years of losing seem to help the 53 year-old native of Phillipsburg, New Jersey appreciate the good times now.

“We’ve really become fashionable up there, people love this team,” he reflected after their semifinal win over Hartford. “You can see how many people come down to here for a 9:30 game on a Monday night. I’ve been here for 17 years, and we were not good for a lot of those years. And no one ever did anything to me except take care of me, to tell me to hang in there, to believe.

“I’m just blessed, I’m just really blessed, because not many people start out 42-88 and get a chance to finish. It just doesn’t happen in this business. I’ve had wonderful guys, I’ve just been very blessed, I’ve been very, very lucky, and the only good thing about me is that I appreciate that. I appreciate every minute of it.”

Indeed he does, and we can expect no one to appreciate being part of this year’s March Madness more.

     

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