RADNOR — The atmosphere inside the Dixon Center is both completely normal and totally surreal.
Cabrini University’s 30-year-old Nerney Field House, a mix of old-school wooden bleachers with a new-school entranceway, has seen perhaps more than its fair share of greatness pass through over the years, the Cavaliers becoming one of the area’s premiere hoops programs despite the school’s relatively recent founding in the mid-1950s.
The Cavaliers’ men’s and women’s teams have made a combined 25 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1987-88, 16 of which have come in the last quarter-century. The men most famously made it all the way to the NCAA Division III championship game in 2012, a moment along with a lacrosse championship in 2019 that ranks as one of the high points in the school’s athletics program.
It’s a run that’s produced hundreds of proud alumni of the teams themselves, not to mention tens of thousands of Cabrini alums in the region. And many of them have been making a trip back to Eagle Road over the last few weeks, to take in a game, wearing the blue and white. To feel like everything is fine, though it’s far from such.
For this is the final year of Cabrini University, the school shutting down at the end of the semester, sold to Villanova University for a purpose still to to be announced. And in the midst of it all is the Cabrini men’s basketball team, having one final season, under a first-year head coach, playing for everything except the future.
Cabrini's Nearny Field House is about to host its final regular-season games.
(Photo courtesy Cabrini Athletics)
Founded in 1957 by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Cabrini was at first an all-women’s college, starting with just 43 students that fall. It went co-ed in 1970, three years after its first athletics teams — including women’s hoops — began playing, and fielded its first men’s basketball team in 1975. The school continually expanded into the early part of the 21st century — new residence halls, a new science and technology building, the Dixon Sports Center.
But after enrolling as many as 2,360 students in 2016, the school’s enrollment dropped by nearly a thousand over the next six years, putting it in more debt than it could handle, the school’s last budget surplus coming back in 2011-12, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Cabrini cut dozens of academic leadership positions after the COVID pandemic, then publicly appealed for partners last year, making it clear the school was in dire straits.
It was June 23, 2023, that the news broke — first on D3Sports.com — that Cabrini University was to close for good at the end of the upcoming school year, the financial burden too much to overcome. Even though the signs had been there, it was still an announcement that stunned the local collegiate landscape, which generally saw Cabrini as an athletic powerhouse with quality academics just a few years earlier.
Instead, Villanova University was to buy the school’s 112-acre Radnor campus, to use it for a to-be-determined purpose, but not to continue running it as an independent institution.
“I feel very optimistic about this agreement that we have made,” school President Helen Drinan told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “At the same time, I am totally sensitive to the emotional impact that this is going to have on people. ... It’s going to be hard for a long time.”
It’s perhaps quite an understatement to say that this isn’t what Ryan Van Zelst signed up for.
Ryan Van Zelst (above) took the Cabrini job in April 2023. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The 35-year-old Conwell-Egan graduate took the men’s basketball coaching job in April after one season at Penn State-Abington, hoping to rebuild a program that was six years removed from its last 20-win season. He knew the school was struggling, that president Helen Drinan had publicly announced the school was looking for partners, which Van Zelst noted could “mean a billion different things.”
But that wasn’t enough to dissuade him.
“This is big-time and this is a job I dream of,” the former University of Scranton assistant and twin brother of Arcadia head coach Adam Van Zelst continued. “Knowing what Coach Dzik and Coach Kahn have done, seeing their banners every day, I wanted to be up there with them and build something the alums could be proud of. I was going to take this job no matter what, because this is where I wanted to be.”
Van Zelst got the job on April 26, 2023. He was head coach less than two months before he found out it would be his first and only season. Like the rest of his players, he found out through a D3Hoops report, Cabrini athletic director Kate Corcoran confirming the news shortly thereafter.
In an instant, the future he’d dreamed of building at Cabrini was gone.
“He could have been very angry about the situation,” Corcoran said. “He was hired in April and six weeks later a bomb drops on him.”
“For somebody like Ryan that was hired and expecting to turn around a program and grow a program and put his stamp on what Cabrini basketball has been in this area, he could have turned angry very quickly, and he didn’t,” the third-year AD added. “His attitude has been phenomenal.”
“I was sad,” Van Zelst admitted. “I’m human — it was probably two months of sadness, feeling bad for yourself and it was hard to get over. Just because of the idea of the place and what we could have done, how special the place is. It probably took me until the end of August to really get going again [...] to kick myself in the head and I was like ‘yo man, you still get to coach.’”
Van Zelst went from thinking about how to rebuild the Cavaliers to figuring out if his team would even have a season. He had planned on having an oversized roster to begin with, nearly 20 in total, combining the group he inherited from Tim McDonald with a number of recruits who had followed him over from Abington. Several left, but within a couple months it became clear Van Zelst had plenty to keep going with, even if it wasn’t everybody he had anticipated.
The women’s team wasn’t so lucky; after a few key members of the team elected to hit the transfer portal later in the summer, head coach Kate Pearson taking the job at Rowan around the same time, the whole roster departed. Women’s volleyball also had its season canceled; a few other teams had incomplete seasons.
Junior wing Donoven Mack (0) is one of the leaders of the Cabrini squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The men’s team made it through the 2023-24 season with a roster 14 strong. There were six returners in third-year players Donoven Mack, Jaden Dickerson and Jayden Blakey, junior Christian Murray, sophomore Isaac Brady and sophomore Jake Green along with two transfers and a six-member freshmen class.
“I’m so proud of the guys that stayed,” Van Zelst said. “It makes me emotional talking about it. It’s not easy, we’re playing a ton of young guys and a lot of guys are in different roles and they’ve got to put up with me. I’m super emotional, and I can be demanding because I want greatness from them, and to not have any regrets.”
The biggest challenge that Van Zelst has struggled with during the season has been his minutes distribution. The natural basketball inclination, especially on a team that’s still trying to win games, is to handle things like normal: an 8-to-10 man rotation, leaning on the veterans, a few freshmen understanding that their time is down the road.
But this year’s freshmen don’t have that piece of mind; they’re worried about finding a new home next year, about proving they can be collegiate basketball players. Van Zelst has to balance winning with player development in a way no other coach in the country has to even think about.
“It’s been something I’ve wrestled with mentally, there’s no doubt,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think my focus has been more about trying to be as competitive as possible and winning as many games as possible. When there’s opportunity to get some young guys in who have earned it and shown who’s ready, they’ve earned it.
“At the same time, I know we have some freshmen who haven’t gotten a ton of minutes, and I’m going to do everything I can to get them opportunities. I know they’re good enough to play other places.”
Getting set to enter his junior season at Cabrini, Donoven Mack was blindsided like the rest of his teammates and the student body in late June when he heard the news that the place at which he planned on getting his business degree would no longer exist a year later.
Two months after finding out he’d have a new coach, the 6-foot-4 junior forward and business management major now didn’t know if he’d get the chance to continue his hoops career at the school he picked coming out of Tower Hill High School in Wilmington, Del. three years prior.
“When we got the news about the shutting down and a new coach, it was just, like, astonishing to us because we were like, ‘What are we going to do next?,’” Mack said.
A sense of panic set in as he explored potential alternatives. That heightened when members of the women’s team, who Mack and his teammates became close with, started heading off to new schools, eventually having their season canceled.
Mack and his roommate Jaden Dickerson decided to return to campus this fall unsure of what lay ahead.
“It was really just talking to coach and just that back and forth, keeping updated on the freshmen, building a relationship with them and I was like, I’mma just stay and see how this year goes, and just bet on ourselves and try to win this thing,” Mack said.
Cabrini’s freshman class hadn’t officially stepped foot on campus before suddenly their college careers took a turn. Several had already switched their college decisions when Van Zelst left PSU-Abington for Cabrini.
The school’s closure added a whirlwind of anxiety and uncertainty to one of the biggest transitional periods of their lives.
Freshman George Marion (above) followed Van Zelst from PSU-Abington to Cabrini. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I was ready to come here and be here all four years,” said freshman George Marion, a William Tennent product. “I came to the campus and liked it and all, but once I got that news, it was like, ‘Dang. Now I gotta do this whole high school, applying to college again. Like I thought I was done with all that.’ It was definitely a kick while you’re already down. I had already decommitted from a school where I was going to go to, came here, was supposed to be here and then they were shutting down.”
Cabrini’s top scorer from a year ago, Girard College product Aquil Stewart, transferred to Gwynedd Mercy. Mack was the top returner after starting 16 of 23 games as a sophomore (7.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg). He’s having a breakout year averaging 14.5 ppg and 4.3 rpg. Neal (9.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), Brady (9.3 ppg, 4.8 ppg) and Blakey (6.8 ppg) are the others to start 19-or-more games. Salata and Dickerson are two of the other top members of the rotation with freshmen Marion, Keenan Reiss and Bryan Warren all averaging more than 15 minutes per game.
It’s a group that has had to get to know each other and learn how to play together throughout the season, while also knowing they won’t ever get the chance to do it again.
“It’s definitely something that goes unsaid,” Salata said. “Of course there is the opportunity that maybe one or two of us might be at the same school next year, wherever that is, but just knowing that this same group of guys that we have with so many young guys on the team at the same time it’s heartbreaking trying to get through it everyday because you know at the end it really won’t be the same ever again.”
This season has not been a Cinderella story for the Cavaliers. They enter their last week of action with a 7-16 record, a 3-7 mark in the Atlantic East Conference, in sixth place in the seven-team league.
Barring a few shocking upsets in the AEC conference tournament, which runs Feb. 19-24, Cabrini basketball will have played its final game by the end of the month.
Along with the seven victories, the Cavs’ players have found other moments to take pride in this season. A motivational speech from former NBA Player and 76ers announcer Marc Jackson stands as a highlight they’ll remember forever. Mack has noted an influx of alumni and other supporters coming in through the gym this season.
“That hasn’t happened before in my three years here,” Mack said. “Seeing that is exciting.”
Van Zelst told the team he will enter them all into the transfer portal at the end of the season to help them focus on the task at hand. Mack said he’s heard from other coaches but has politely asked them to check back in after the season. Marion, who has played in 21 games and is averaging 4.3 pgg in 15.5 mpg, has been more proactive in finding his next college home.
“I’ve just taken my own approach,” Marion said. “I’ve reached out to schools. I’ve talked to coaches because I’m obviously a freshman and I want to play somewhere next year, so I’ve taken it into my own hands.”
Salata only played in eight games as a freshman at Gwynedd in 2021-22. After dealing with injuries, he carved out a role during conference play, averaging 5.6 ppg in 15.3 mpg on the season. An already winding basketball journey will take him somewhere else this offseason, hopefully somewhere he can play and complete the last two years of his computer science degree — which he already thought he found when he transferred to Cabrini.
“Pretty much wherever I can wrap up that degree and continue to play basketball is going to be the eye opener for me,” Salata said. “There’s no set schools or anything. Whoever reaches out, wherever it takes, I’m not a picky kid. Wherever I can go handle my business and get my education and go play basketball, I’ll be grateful to be there.”
What will happen to Cabrini University’s campus and to the Dixon Center specifically remains unclear.
Villanova hasn’t announced any plans for its newest acquisition, not that it has to be in any hurry. The facilities are in good physical condition; just like St. Joe’s has with the former USciences arena, which it acquired a couple years ago, Villanova could rent out the Dixon Center for other events. Having a D-III hoops showcase in the building wouldn’t be the worst way to commemorate its past.
“Without our athletes playing on it, I don’t know that it has the same feel,” Corcoran said. “I would hope that there’s a way to honor not only the basketball history that has come through there but the athletic success that’s come through there, whether it’s in keeping the banners or keeping some of the memorabilia to be able to really highlight how special that history was.”
As for the Cabrini men’s basketball roster, those with eligibility remaining are hoping to find homes for next year and beyond. It’s a process that everybody’s aware of but nobody’s started yet; multiple people said the whole team will be entering the transfer portal the day after the season.
Van Zelst said he’ll do what he can to help his players find their next spot, though he’s been trying to keep it out of their minds until the time comes. Coaches are sure to be sympathetic to the Cabrini players’ situations, but that doesn’t mean they have to open up a roster spot for them.
“Especially at our level and the trickle-down effect that takes place with the transfer portal, most Division III schools want to try to get Division II guys, so I don’t think talking to other schools and maybe putting more information into their head towards looking at the next spot [during the season] is necessary and would be productive and best for them going forward,” Van Zelst said. “I just said to all of them, ‘hey, that first day we’re done, we’ll put you all in the portal, we’re going to sit down, get a list of schools that you’re interested [in], that might be a good fit, and then I’ll call coaches.’”
That time is quickly approaching. This week are the final two regular-season home games in Cabrini men’s basketball history, two final chances for the program’s alumni who’ve been streaming to games all season to come take in a game and wear the blue and white.
First up is a game Tuesday against Immaculata; Marywood visits Friday in the regular-season finale. They’ll qualify for the Atlantic East playoffs, with a first-round game coming Monday, February 19, potentially at Neumann.
At that point, the next loss becomes the final one. The jerseys will get washed for one last time, Van Zelst holding one more post-game meeting.
Then Cabrini men’s basketball joins the archives of Philadelphia basketball, an important chapter no doubt, but one whose final words will have been put to ink. It’s not the season any of the expected to have. It’s one for which they’ll be eternally grateful.
“I’m thankful because if you look at the whole way it was set up, I don’t think anybody was really supposed to have a season,” Mack said. “Just being able to have a season, bond with the new sophomores and freshmen and having another year with my roommate on the basketball team, I’m thankful for all that.
“My relationship with coach, I’m going to have that for the rest of my life now. It’s just a lot of positives we’re taking out from this year, not focusing on the negatives that it’s our last time playing together. We’re just trying to make the best of every day that we’re here with each other.”