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Daubert: Area's small-college programs raring to go

10/14/2021, 8:30am EDT
By Ty Daubert

Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)

It was the Zoom invitation Eric Esposito expected, but dreaded receiving. The Holy Family sophomore had been away from the school’s Northeast campus, at his Langhorne home, hoping for a reversal of fortune which wasn’t to come.

Tigers head coach Ryan Haigh called his team together (virtually) in December to deliver the dreaded message heard ‘round the Philadelphia small-college basketball scene: the 2020-2021 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many of the area's small-college basketball players, Eric Esposito (above) is ready to get back to action. (Photo courtesy HFU Athletics)

“I would say people looked obviously defeated,” Esposito said of his teammates’ reactions, “and more like, confused. We’ve all been playing basketball since we’ve been young kids, and now we have a whole year of just no basketball. You don’t really know what to do.”

Ten months later, that sense of direction is back for the 6-foot-7 junior and many others as the Holy Family men’s program, along with the rest of the region’s Division II and Division III basketball programs, are slated for a complete 2021-2022 schedule.

While most of the nation’s Division I teams played a full or nearly full 2020-2021 schedule, programs at the lower levels were not so fortunate. A majority of the small-college teams in the region missed out on a season entirely, and those that played a handful of games didn't experience the feel of a normal year.

This season, teams are able to get their entire squads back in the gym as they prepare to tip off play in November.

“Honestly, I'm just super excited to be on the floor with our guys and have everybody back on campus,” West Chester men’s coach Damien Blair said. “Not being on campus and not having a season (last year), I mean it really crushed a lot of our kids' spirits -- and also our staff. So to be back in the gym, competing against each other, trying to get ready for a season is awesome.”

A member of the D-II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), West Chester did not hold any basketball activities last year following a 20-10 season two years ago. Blair said his Rams have a number of young players looking to step up this season, but they of course have limited experience at the college level. Still, he’s excited to continue seeing what they can do and holds his team to a high standard.

“We always want to be No. 1 or 2 in our league,” Blair said, referring to the PSAC. “Our league is one of the toughest leagues in the country, and we feel as if we’re in the top of our league, then we’ve got an opportunity to make it to the NCAAs and try to make a national run.”

For one team that was in the midst of a potential title run itself in 2019-2020, the internal expectations are much more relaxed after losing last season. The Swarthmore men’s squad had just won its second-round matchup when the pandemic cut the Division III NCAA Tournament short in March 2020. Ranked No. 1 in the country, the Garnet had an 28-1 record at that point. A D-III national championship was certainly a possibility for Swarthmore, if not a likely scenario. But that was a different time with a different group of players. After such a long layoff and with a difficult season to navigate ahead, head coach Landry Kosmalski isn’t putting pressure on his current team to prove anything based on two years ago.

“We have no real expectations, other than that we want to come and do what we do every day and try to be who we are,” he said. “And anything that happens out of our control, we’ll adjust to as best we can.”

Landry Kosmalski (above) and Swarthmore were No. 1 in the country when COVID shut them down. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Like many other programs, Swarthmore will use its four weeks of regular practice time, which begin Oct. 15, to determine the strengths of its current set of players as the season nears closer.

“We’re kinda starting from scratch and trying to figure out the best way to do it with this group,” Kosmalski said. “If that means we’re one of the top five teams in the country, great. If it means we’re in the top 100, great. We just need to do the best we can with the group we have.”

For some, the return of small-college basketball represents the start of a new beginning. Bobbi Morgan has taken over as the head coach of the Ursinus women’s team after 14 years at Haverford. Originally set to coach high school at Agnes Irwin, she changed course after she was offered the job in September to lead her former Centennial Conference foe.

“I think it'll be strange for me to coach in the conference where I coached for so long for a different team,” Morgan said. “But I've always said this to everybody: When you change coaching jobs, you’re going to always care about the people you left, but you’re going to learn to care for the new people too just as much. I’m just excited for kids at Ursinus and all the kids in the Centennial to compete.”

With the late start in joining the Bears, who went 7-18 two seasons ago, learning more about her players quickly could be a challenge for Morgan. Luckily, she knows some through her daughter, who is a senior lacrosse player for Ursinus, and has familiarity with others’ games.

“The biggest thing I have to do is try to get to know my players, have them get to know me and build trust,” she said. “... I've coached against them, obviously. And I know a lot of the folks in the athletic department (at Ursinus), so I feel very comfortable. That’s why I accepted the job. But I think it’s just gonna take time. I have to get to know these players, who they are and what they do well.”

The upcoming season also serves as a last ride for others. After not competing or practicing in any way last year, USciences will play its final season ahead of a merger between the school and St. Joe’s that will place both entities under the SJU moniker.

“We’re really just trying to treat this like any other season,” Devils women’s head coach Jackie Hartzell said. “Obviously, the players all know that it's our last year, so it's not something that we really want to point out to them and bring attention to. But we do just want to make sure that they appreciate every moment, and I think our players definitely do. I think that everyone right now just has the mentality that we're going to work as hard as we can and just make the best of our last year and enjoy the time that we do have together.”

Under the merger, USciences will no longer have an athletics program in Division II or the CACC, as both combining schools will be represented by the St. Joe’s program. Despite this, Hartzell said her team, which went 26-4 in 2019-2020, is ready to represent USciences one last time after not getting to last season.

“It’ll be bittersweet because of our situation,” she said, “so there are definitely some emotions involved, but more than anything is going to be excitement. It’s been a long time, and we can’t wait to play a game again.”

While most schools did not get a chance to play any games last season, a handful were able to play some after the new year. Cabrini’s women’s team, for example, played exactly one official game in the 2020-2021 season. The Cavaliers defeated D-III Atlantic East opponent Neumann 58-50 on senior day, March 6.

However, Cabrini spent most of its time together practicing. The team focused on individual skill workouts more than it ever had to account for social distancing, which head coach Kate Pearson said she found to be effective. With last fall being relatively warm, Pearson started holding as many outdoor practices and workouts as the weather permitted so the team could play as a full group with fewer restrictions. The players were receptive and continued working outdoors in the spring.

But even with the chance to do as much as a team as Cabrini did, nothing can compare to getting back to playing a real schedule of games.

“I love practice, and, as a coach, I could do practices every day,” Pearson said. “But I know that the energy of a game day is something that is really special for the players and for their families.”

DeSales men’s team was another program to play games last season. The Bulldogs went 9-2 in an 11-game schedule beginning in February that included nine Middle Atlantic Conference contests. 

“It was great for our players to be able to play,” head coach Scott Coval said. “But, quite frankly, the season wasn’t anything at all normal. As far as practices, preseason practice, it’s all going to be new to our freshman and pretty new to our kids coming back. Although we played games, our practices and preseason were anything but normal.”

The restrictions in place in preseason didn’t allow for the full team to work out all together. Coval hopes that his team can build on the experience from the abbreviated season as the players move into a more conventional year. 

“Those 11 games certainly helped them and helped adjust a little bit to college,” he said. “But it wasn’t anything like a real season last year.”

Most around the area feel that the upcoming campaign should feel a lot more like a real season. There will still be restrictions to follow, but playing all the way through would feel a whole lot better than what teams did last season. 

Of course, nothing can be taken for granted, and people within the game know that by now.

“You never know, as a coach, how many on your team can get wiped out still [due to a positive case or contact tracing],” Kosmalski said. “Mainly because of the Delta variant, but also because of some unvaccinated people you could be competing against. We're excited about the possibility [of a smooth season], but not feeling 100% secure that it's gonna go off without a hitch.”

“I think we’re all kind of in a ‘Who knows what’ll happen next?’ stage,” Morgan said. “I think this feels a lot better than last year. We’ve figured some things out, there’s a vaccine. My hope is that it will be close to normal and that we can just compete.”

The landscape is fairly normal as of now, and with that comes another small-college season right around the corner. Players and coaches know it can change at any point, but they’re grateful for what’s in front of them. They’ve missed out on too much to not appreciate what they do have.

“I think it puts things in perspective, not playing for a year and being out of basketball,” Blair said. “I think they realize that this is an opportunity of a lifetime and they need to take advantage of it. And I think they're really, really excited to get started with the season.”

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