Can it Get Any Better in Vermont?
by Phil Kasiecki
WORCESTER, Mass. – The Bay State is fast becoming the place of great sports stories these days. There also seems to be a common theme, one that should be refreshing to sports fans all over.
The Boston area had the Patriots win two Super Bowls in three years, winning with a team of great character – the kind that makes you want to naturally root for a team. Still, they longed for a World Series title with the Red Sox, and finally, they got it in October. Once again, it was a team of some character, although a little different – this group was a very loose group of characters. For good measure, the Patriots added a third Super Bowl championship just last month, and earlier in the year, Boston College won their first 20 games of the season in basketball.
Friday night, the state became home to another sports story, although it ultimately belongs to a neighboring state to the north. With Vermont’s 60-57 overtime win over Syracuse at the DCU Center in Worcester, the story of the school in the tight-knit town of Burlington, Vermont just grows a little more.
“We’re good, I’ve been saying that all the time, and now, it’s just out there, it’s out there that we are good,” head coach Tom Brennan said.
Much of the story of the Catamounts is available to those outside of the immediate geographic area. In recent years, they have received their fair share of national attention, from winning three straight America East championships to the play of star senior Taylor Coppenrath to their retiring head coach. Anyone who has been to the campus has been able to realize that Burlington is home to one of the real hidden treasures of college basketball, and that isn’t just true on the hardwood.
“Everybody has come up to us,” said Brennan of the national attention they have received. “Everybody says the same thing – what’s wrong here, what aren’t we seeing, what’s going on? I told people the same thing: you came looking for me, we didn’t come looking for you! I didn’t call anybody and say, ‘come up and see what a good deal we have here.’ We’ve done it this way for 19 years – we’ve done it always this way, we graduate our kids.”
On Friday, much of it played out in their first round upset, which continued the assault on the school record books that has taken place over the last four years. They never won 20 or more games until the past four years, in which they have won at least 21 games each season and are peaking with 25 this season. In that time, their record is 89-35. Only two other teams have won three consecutive America East championships, so they join elite company there. Friday’s win is their first ever in the NCAA Tournament, their first ever over a Big East team, and also their first over a ranked team in 13 tries.
This is a team, much like all of the other teams Tom Brennan has had in 19 seasons, composed of players who are not elite talents. None were mistaken for McDonald’s All-Americans in high school; instead, they were good players, solid citizens, and good students. This is life as a mid-major; every so often, you might get a player talented enough to play at a higher level, or one who was still early in his development and flew under the radar, or one who simply gets more out of his talent than anyone. Sometimes, it’s the right mix of players – as the Red Sox and Patriots have shown, the importance of chemistry cannot be understated.
Vermont has a combination of some of the above. They have players like Sorrentine, a solid mid-major prospect coming out of St. Raphael’s High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Coppenrath never scored 1,000 points at the varsity level in Vermont, and redshirted his freshman year to develop further. Germain Mopa Njila was a role player on a good AAU team, but was not a star. Casual fans in the United States surely had no idea who senior David Hehn (who is from Ontario) or sophomore Martin Kilmes (from the Czech Republic) were, or even Mopa Njila, a native of Cameroon who came to the U.S. just two years before coming to Vermont.
After Friday night’s game, more people from outside Vermont know who they are now.
“Now, we’re validated, we are really validated as a program,” Brennan said.
Further validating them was a call from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Brennan said Leahy and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton put a friendly wager on the game. He didn’t know what was on the line, but didn’t care; the locker room erupted into laughter as he said that.
The win over Syracuse was vintage Vermont basketball in many respects. The crowd was decidedly pro-Vermont; part of it was how well they travel, especially to sites in Massachusetts, but part of it was surely sentimental and part of it was surely casual fans rooting for the underdog. The atmosphere was simply amazing, and it was close throughout as neither team ever led by more than six. The Catamounts were simply the tougher team, winning a game that was certainly not pretty, and they made the plays when it counted. They used their patient offense to make Syracuse work in their 2-3 zone defense, working the shot clock down and making shots when they needed to.
The star players didn’t carry the Catamounts like they did in the America East Tournament, but they certainly played key roles. The senior-laden team played like one, with Mopa Njila playing the game of a lifetime. His 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting, along with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals, was certainly the stat line of the night, but he did it playing just like he always has. He plays the game in flow, always seeming to make the right decision with the ball, whether it’s taking a shot or even passing up a shot where no defender is within several feet of him. Always a guy who plays bigger than his size, he was larger than life on Friday night.
“Today it was on national TV against one of the best programs in history,” he said after the game. “It’s even better, it’s by far the best game of my life.”
Another regularity was the clutch shot by Sorrentine, who has done this his entire career. On Friday, the stakes were much higher and the shot deeper – several feet behind the NBA three-point line. There was never a doubt as the shot clock ran down where the ball was headed.
“I knew it was down when I let it go. I had one more in me,” Sorrentine said.
Like the success of the pro sports teams, the success of the Catamounts is really something a fan of the game should appreciate. This is a team you can really get behind – they’re solid young men, excellent students, very down-to-earth, and they play the game the right way. In an age where the world of sports has things like performance-enhancing drugs, athletes and coaches who are hardly model citizens, as well as players who are showmen instead of winning players, Vermont is a breath of fresh air. This is the kind of team you want to see succeed if you want to see the good guys come out on top.
Vermont has been on quite a ride the last four seasons with its unprecedented success. They will face Michigan State on Sunday in the second round, hoping to continue it just a little longer. Friday night’s win is a great cap on the current run, but winning Sunday would just be a little extra-special, and it would be part of one more great sports story happening in Massachusetts of late.