Sam Lebryk (above) has helped Swarthmore undergo a remarkable turnaround in four years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When the three seniors on Swarthmore’s basketball team arrived at the school in the fall of 2013, the thought of the Garnet playing in an NCAA Tournament seemed like a fantasy.
There was no reason to think any differently; Swarthmore basketball had always been largely an afterthought. Sure, there was an exciting second-year head coach in Landry Kosmalski, who had a successful playing career at Davidson and had spent time on the Wildcats bench learning from one of the best in the business in Bob McKillop, but this was Swarthmore.
In nearly seven decades of recorded Garnet basketball, there had never been a league championship. There had never been a reason to hang an NCAA banner. Heck, there hadn’t even been that many winning seasons.
And then, when it all finally happened, it turns out it was a fantasy all along.
“Words can’t describe it,” said Sam Lebryk, a Falls Church, Va. native and one of those three seniors, along with Chris Bourne and Michael Rubayo.
Those three found each other immediately after the buzzer sounded at Swarthmore’s Tarble Pavilion, with the 68-64 score displayed on the boards meaning the Garnet were making their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Swarthmore’s players celebrated at midcourt briefly before shaking hands with their opponent, a Dickinson side that no doubt will be chomping at the bit next season with its entire rotation returning.
It was only after the two sides had shaken hands and returned to their benches that the several hundred students who had filled one of the bleachers poured onto the court, surrounding the Garnet.
Credit to the one security guard who held them off so long, it was a group that was releasing about 70 years of pent-up frustration.
“They’ve kind of grown as we’ve grown as a program,” junior guard Zack Yonda said. “We had a couple of guys, a couple ex-players that had to stop playing that have really led that student section. So there’s a special bond between us and them.
“I feel good for the school, we haven’t done this in forever,” the Conestoga product added. “They’ve grown with us and it’s just awesome to see and they deserved it as much as we do.”
Swat sophomore Cam Wiley (above) was named MVP after a 28-point performance. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The conference tournament MVP was Swarthmore sophomore Cam Wiley, an Atlanta native who’s been the team’s leading scorer all season long (18.5 ppg). The 6-0 guard scored a game-high 28 points in the final, including a big-time 3-pointer to put the Garnet up four with under two minutes to play.
“At that point I knew we had the momentum, all we had to do was just get defensive stops and pull it out,” he said. “We were in the position to win, so we just had to finish through the grind at that point.”
Dickinson, which had trailed by nine (35-24) in the first half and led by as many as 11 (58-47) with 10:40 to play, got a solitary foul shot to make it a three-point game.
Lebryk scored the most crucial of his five points by hitting two foul shots with 20 seconds left. The Red Devils responded with a layup, and then forced a tie-up on the inbounds to regain possession with nine seconds to play.
But Swarthmore stole it right back, with Yonda (13 points) hitting one final foul shot with five seconds left to seal the win.
“I’ve been to the line in tight situations a lot in my career, I’m just trying to think of something happy,” he said. “I think of my family, I think of my friends, I think of the people in the stands who love me. I just try to put a smile on my face and shoot it.”
For Kosmalski, the championship was the payoff to five years spent building Swarthmore from an easy ‘W’ on the schedule for the rest of the league into its regular-season champion.
“It was a painful process at times,” he said, “but ultimately led to where we are today.”
Kosmalski took over a program that went 3-22 the year before he got there (2011-12), winning seven games in his first season. The second year, with Lebryk and Bourne playing big roles as freshmen, the Garnet added one more to the win total.
The coach felt a breakthrough happened during his third year with the team, in 2014-15, when they went 11-14 overall, including a 7-11 mark in Centennial Conference play. Four of those losses were by five points or less.
“We said we got the team together after that year and said how many games do we want to win next year...and they just said ‘let’s win every game,’” Kosmalski said. “And so that was our mentality, just to try to win every game.”
They won 22 games last season, a school record by five, and one they tied with the league championship win on Saturday night.
The 2015-16 season ended with a loss to Franklin & Marshall in the Centennial championship and a trip to the ECAC tournament, the D-III version of the NIT except with only eight teams, where the Garnet fell to Neumann in the championship.
“I think that was really helpful too, we got some postseason experience,” Lebryk said. “I think that gave us the added motivation to push and make it to the next step.”
From 1997-98 (the earliest year available on Swarthmore’s website) through last year, Swarthmore had played in exactly zero playoff games.
Now, the ball is rolling like it never has in the program’s history.
“The first thing I think about is my experience at Davidson,” said Kosmalski, who scored 1,438 points there from 1996-2000 under longtime head coach Bob McKillop. “Although it’s a small, liberal arts, high-academic school, when I went there, one of the things that’s the draw is the guys that started the tradition, Lefty Dreisell started it in the 60s and had this great run of NCAA Tournament appearances and conference titles.
“I think what Coach McKillop’s done there…[but] it’s easier when someone’s done it before. I don’t think our guys will recognize it at all, but they may in 10 or 20 years, it takes a hell of a lot to actually start it, to start a tradition,” he continued. “And as I’m talking about it, i’m getting a little emotional, it’s obviously really a challenge and we’re the ones that did it.
“I’m very proud of our team for setting that standard.”