Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
There exists a picture, taken in the fall, of the Eastern University men’s basketball seniors — or maybe the captains, or the starting five; that part’s up for debate.
What isn’t disputed is that everybody in the picture is holding up exactly nine fingers. It’s a number that represents the Eagles’ pick in the MAC Commonwealth preseason poll, as well as the number of games they played last season, and the number of losses they suffered.
“I told them, we can use this as bulletin board material, but I don’t want to be the team that says ‘they disrespected us’ or whatever the case is,” head coach Dan Pruessner said. “We are who we are.”
“We all knew we weren’t an 0-9 team,” junior guard Sam Gallardo added. “COVID, we didn’t get a lot of reps, a lot of guys missing, a lot of transfers, we already knew what we could do.
“We all knew it was a fluke — it was just waiting for the next season to show that it (was) a fluke.”
The 2021-22 season hasn’t been perfect for Pruessner’s Eagles, either. One of their top players is currently sidelined with injury, others have missed time due to the pandemic or other ailments. They’ve had to rely on deep reserves playing big minutes in key games, to generate energy on their home court without a constant fan presence.
And despite all of that, they’re winning. A lot.
A 79-64 triumph over York College (Pa.) on Saturday afternoon was the 11th in a row for the Eastern men, who haven’t lost to a Division III opponent since Nov. 13, their third game of the season. They’re now 12-2 on the season, 7-0 in the MAC Commonwealth in their first full season in the league after coming over from the MAC Freedom following the 2019-20 campaign.
Bigger goals remain on the horizon. The program has never won a conference championship, of any kind.
“We’re happy, we’re excited,” fifth-year forward William Blet said, “but we’re focused on keeping it one game at a time.”
The Eastern men’s program has been around since the 1950s, though the basketball records are spotty at best through the 1980s. The private school located in St. David’s, just across Eagle Road from Cabrini University, joined the NCAA as a member of the Pennsylvania Athletic Conference (PAC) — now the Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC) — in 1992, leaving it for the Middle Atlantic Conference conglomeration in 2008.
Throughout its 30-odd years as an NCAA squad, the Eastern men haven’t been a doormat, but they haven’t been contenders, either. They had a losing record their first 14 years, until a 16-10 (11-8) season in 2005-06; a 17-win season in 2008-09 was the high-water mark.
Two years ago, Pruessner’s first as head coach after succeeding Eric McNelley — now the school’s athletic director — on the sidelines, Eastern matched that 17-win season, going 11-3 in the MAC Freedom. After entering January play that year with a 4-6 record, the Eagles won 13 of their next 16, putting them into a conference title game for the first time in program history. Though they fell short to top seed Stevens (N.J.), it was a new high-water mark and a significant sign of progress.
Then COVID happened.
The winless 2021 campaign featured three losses against Stevenson, two against Messiah, two against DeSales, and one each against Lebanon Valley and Albright. Six were by double figures; the other three by six or fewer. Five of the six leading scorers from the successful prior season were gone, either due to graduation or a leave of absence.
On top of that, the Eagles had to adjust to a new style of play from the multi-big lineup of years past, with program stalwarts Victor Peña and Michael Bowlers — both physical 6-foot-8 post presences — finally moving on.
William Blet (above) is the Eagles' leader in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“The year that we made it to the championship [...] we ran everything through the post,” said the 6-8, 255-pound Blet. “We completely changed that and now everything’s up and down. I was a little bit worried how that was going to work out, but I trusted the coaching staff, and it’s been working.”
Blet is one of the most experienced veterans on the current Eastern roster, with 71 games (45 starts) under his belt entering the season. He’s also their leading scorer (14.8 ppg) and rebounder (8.0 rpg), an imposing left-hander and space-eater who’s plenty mobile despite his big frame; a gregarious personality, he’s also one of their on-court leaders, keeping his teammates in line and firing them up when needed.
The Miami native, one of several South Florida products on the Eagles — McNelley and Pruessner both hail from Miami, and have recruited that region hard during their combined tenure — claimed a Division I offer from Air Force coming out of Coral Gables, and said he was hearing from numerous Division II programs, making a trip out to Cal Poly-Pomona as he was going through his recruiting journey.
Not sure at the time he wanted the rigor of being a scholarship basketball player, he chose to come north, to a school of 3,300 undergraduates, to hopefully help make some history where he could.
“Another part of the reason why I came here was just the possibility of being the first,” he said. “This school has never won, we’ve never won a basketball championship — the volleyball runs this gym. You come in here, there’s no banners up.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve made the playoffs every year,” he added, "and now we have the best start in Eastern history. It’s a good feeling.”
Blet’s journey to Eastern is representative of a roster that hails from nine different states and the District of Columbia, plus Spanish forward Alejandro Martinez. There’s a couple local players like Terron Bacon, who graduated from Sankofa Freedom in 2016, arrived at Eastern two years later and is now an integral part of the rotation.
Gallardo, who hails from San Antonio, didn’t plan on playing college basketball at all until he got a call from Pruessner the day before his high school graduation, used a vacation to Philadelphia as a chance to see the school, and is now third on the team in scoring (11.0 ppg) after an 18-point, nine-rebound, three-assist, one-turnover outing against York.
All those different paths have converged this season, turning into something special.
The Eagles won their 2021-22 season opener, downing a quality Salisbury (Md.) squad which a week later went on to beat D-I Delaware State. Then came an eye-opening trip to Virginia, where they got smacked by Roanoke College (85-58) in the opener of a season tip-off tournament.
As Eastern sat and watched their next opponent, nationally-ranked Christopher Newport, take on No. 3 Marietta, there was a collective thought: “It was like ‘oh crap, can we do this?’” Pruessner said. “They came out the next day, and I felt like it was a turning point.”
The Eagles led by three at the half and were still ahead by two with nine minutes to go before the Captains, currently No. 9 in the country, pulled away down the stretch. Even though Eastern lost 83-72, it was still a major boost to their collective confidence.
“We know we have a strong conference,” Gallardo said, “but we don’t have teams like Christopher Newport or Roanoke — and if we play like how we (played) against Christopher Newport, no one can stop us.”
“We lost, but we walked out of there feeling like we could do this,” Pruessner said. “Since then, we’ve been locked in.”
The winning started with a 62-47 triumph at Haverford College on Nov. 16, and hasn’t stopped, though it hasn’t been easy. They’ve had to survive tough road trips, late comebacks, COVID shortages, and more.
But when you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll. Eastern had to face conference co-leader Hood last week minus three starters — and got 26 points from freshman Davin Hernandez, who’s scored a total of 17 points in his other 10 appearances.
“It’s just kind of like, it’s getting a little eerie here,” Pruessner said.
There actually was one loss during the stretch, though it’s not one that counts. Eastern went to Lehigh on Dec. 29 and gave its Division I opponent all it could handle. The Mountain Hawks won, 70-63, but not before trailing by two at the break and giving up 32 points to Blet; Eastern was 0-for-11 from 3-point range and missing a couple rotation members, knowing it could have really made noise if a few things had gone just a little differently.
“Sam was pissed after that game, he was so mad,” Pruessner said. “And the other guys were like, ‘chill, it’s a Division I team, relax.’ But (the mood in the locker room) wasn’t all ‘yay’ at all; they thought they should have got it.”
Eastern has nine games left on its regular season schedule, four home and five away. A strong close ensures a spot in the MAC playoffs, just a couple wins from the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament.
The best season in Eastern men’s basketball is within this group’s grasp, a chance to end a decades-long drought. Hundreds of Eagles alumni are watching closely, the history of the program weighing on the shoulders of the current squad.
“All the alumni are very much invested in what we’re doing here,” Blet said. “My roommate is an alum, and I hear from him every single day. He wants us to win just as much as I want us to win.”
“We talk about it a lot,” Gallardo said. “We know it’s a possibility, but at the end of the day, it’s actually going out on the court and doing it. At the end of the day, anybody can lose to any team, first or last.
“I feel like (winning the first conference championship) drives us to want to win, and we know we have a chance, and that makes us want to do it even more.”