Photo courtesy of Mount St. Mary University Athletics.
By David Cordova
Every year, it’s a battle to get to the NCAA Tournament. Most conferences have at least five or six teams getting into the Big Dance, while others only have one. Many of the teams that make the Tournament from the one-bid leagues are mid-to-low major schools. Those are the schools that make what a lot of people call the Cinderella Stories.
The fact that these schools only get one bid means that it’s more of a competition to get to that number one spot. For those that don’t get make it to the Big Dance, the other consolations, depending on their overall record is the NIT, the CBI, the College Insider’s Postseason Tournament. The worst case scenario is their season is over if they lose one game in their conference tournament.
Last season, Mount St. Mary University was the team that made that appearance and now, their mission is to make it back to the tournament. But first, the story starts with Jamion Christian, a graduate of the school in 2003, who is now in his sixth season as the head coach of the Mountaineers.
“Well, I think the biggest thing is to get the most out of every guy on your roster, I think that’s extremely important,” says Christian about the mission of the program. “I always say, ‘Let each become all he is able,’ that’s the goal every single year, and if we’re able to allow everybody to become the best that they can and to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable and understands what they need to do in order to help our team to continue to progress, we got the opportunity to create something special at the end of the season.”
When asked about the joy of coaching at his alma mater, he replied, “It’s unbelievable, just being at a place where you really grew up and having a firm understanding of what it takes to win and a true appreciation for the people who work there, all the way up from the custodial staff to our president. Just being able to be at a place that you’re fully supported and that you understand that everybody’s important, I’m just really fortunate. Not many guys get to coach at their alma mater, not many get a chance to win a championship or two at their alma mater. We’ve had the opportunity to do that and just to feel that love and compassion from our group has been really special.”
Then there is the town of Emmitsburg, Maryland, where the school is located. It is a small town that is close to the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania and is a place that is home to at least 3,000 people. “Oh, man. It’s an unbelievably hard-working community,” says Christian of the town, “They love a few things, they love getting up and going to work everyday, they’re passionate and enthusiastic for life and they love coming to Mount basketball games and you see that with our attendance numbers, how well we’re supported even on break games. We’ve got a great, great fan base and an unbelievable group of in Emmitsburg that supports us and loves us.”
Knott Arena, their home gym, which seats at least 3,500 people and can be packed when there’s very big games. It can also be a very intimidating environment for opposing teams. “It’s an incredible environment. Each of the last three years, we’ve had the highest level of attendance in the league. We had four sellouts last year. It’s just a great environment and it’s a place where opposing teams love to play because it’s going to be a great crowd, but they hate to play, because the crowd is gonna be so loud. It definitely gives a tremendous home-court advantage game in and game out.”
The Mountaineers play in the Northeast Conference (NEC), which is a league that has a lot of hungry teams that are hungry and ready to compete. It is also a league in which only the top eight teams make the playoffs and only one remains at the end.
“It’s unbelievably challenging, it’s one of the best things about college basketball,” says Christian about the league. “And you get to that month of March and you’re in a one-bid league in which you’re in an opportunity to either win or go home, and it’s a great challenge and it means that you’ve got to consistently get better throughout the course of the year and you can never rest on your laurels because at any moment your season can end. And so, if you love challenges and you’re a person that believes in challenges and big opportunities, if you’re able to do that, the month of March is where you’re going to thrive the most.”
In the 2016-17 season, the Mountaineers went 20-16 overall and 14-4, which gave them the first place in the NEC. First, they dispatched Sacred Heart on March 1st in the quarterfinals, then it was Robert Morris in the semifinals on March 4th and then on March 7th in the championship game, they defeated St. Francis (PA), 71-61, to win the conference title and send them to their fifth NCAA Tournament on the Division I level in school history.
They then beat New Orleans in the play-in game of the Big Dance and then their run ended in the first round to Villanova, 76-56. But then again, the Mount had a really big season.
“It was just a lot of fun, it’s a thing where you look at it with your group. You know, you start out and these guys, they don’t understand what it is to win and what it takes to win and then as you go through the course of the year and you see them start to figure it out and understand it, you see the emotion they have within that moment, you know to see guys holding each other, crying on that floor and to see our alums jumping up & down the floor with us. It just creates special moments, and I think sports has the ability to bring groups together and bring people together in such a unique way. And so, a chance to win a championship and play in the NCAA Tournament provides you all those things and memories along the way. I think people always think, like you remember the games and how you played, but what you really remember is the camaraderie of you have with the people around you and the journey it took to get there,” says Christian of the magical season.
One of the players that helped them to that Tournament run was Lamont “Junior” Robinson, a 5-foot-5 point guard that maybe small in stature, but plays bigger than his frame. Last year, as a junior, Robinson averaged 14.1 points and 2.9 assists per game. This year, as a senior, he is poised to post even bigger numbers.
“Well, he’s a bad man. Pound for pound, he’s one of the best players in the country,” Christian says of Robinson. “I’m looking forward to a year where he can showcase all he can do. At 5-foot-5, he has a 43-inch vertical, he’s an athletic freak, but he also shoots 40% from three, and there’s not a lot of guys in the country that are able to do that, no matter what their size is. His heart and his soul fuels our team and it’s done that for the last few years.”
But then again, as is customary with smaller leagues in college basketball, not too many players stay four years. More than likely, for reasons that vary, they will end up transferring to higher-major schools. The Mount was no exception as they lost guards Elijah Long (Texas), Miles Wilson (Miami) and Mawdo Sallah (Kansas State) to transfers.
When asked about the transfer epidemic and losing key members of last year’s team, Christian replied, “I think every player has a value, and I wouldn’t put one player over another. Again, the goal is to get the most out of each player on your roster. So I think, if you look at it that way, you have some guys that make decisions and have options, and they make decisions based on those options. I don’t fault those guys, I talk to those guys at least once a week, so we’re all very close.”
Adds Christian, “The biggest thing I always say is, ‘You win with the guys that are in your locker room,’ and if you’re gonna be good in this business, you’ve got to continue to try to adapt. This is big time for coaches to learn how to adapt. But I think the one thing that has remained true since the beginning of time, is you’re going to win with the guys in your locker room. And so if you can focus on the guys in your locker room, the passion they have, the love they have for one another, it’s going to give you the opportunity to be the best at the end of the year.”
This year, the Mount is rebuilding, as they now have twelve freshmen on joining the squad and only four returning players from last year’s squad. But Christian looks at it is a learning experience.
“I think every year is a growing year, and that’s one big thing we talk about in our program is just learning and growing from game in and game out and so I think every year is learning and growing. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have or you don’t have, because every experience you have is going to be facing the floor is gonna be a new experience. And so, just having that mindset from the beginning, we do have twelve freshmen, but we got great leadership in Junior Robinson, Greg Wray (senior), Greg Alexander (senior), Ryan Gomes (sophomore), Jack Vukelich (redshirt freshman), Jonah Anonio (redshirt freshman), those were all guys that were on the roster last year, and a couple of those guys redshirted, but they understand what our culture is like and I think them understanding what our culture is and why we’re doing it and really living a life of purpose, I think really has helped the freshmen adapt. We’ve got a mature group of freshmen, they played for great high school coaches and winning programs, I do think that makes a big difference. The NEC is a league where freshmen can come in and make a great impact and if we’re able to bring these guys along and help them with their maturity and help them understand our system and most importantly our culture and why it’s so important, it’s a good opportunity.”
This season, they have a few major non-conference games against Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgetown and Pittsburgh before they start conference play on December 29th against Wagner on the road. Even though they will be a little young, don’t count out the Mountaineers, as they plan on showing what they’re made of in 2017-18.
“This season, we’re going to keep learning and growing,” says Christian, “That’s a huge thing. Our future is really bright. Our future is bright because we believe it’s going to be right, we believe in each other, we believe in the love we’re able to create in the locker room every single day, and the love we create from the upperclassmen to the younger guys, I think all those things help you create something really special. Every championship team I’ve ever been a part of, every great program I’ve been a part of, I’ve had a ton of love and empathy and we’ve had those components, now we’ve got to get better and have to get bigger and stronger, but I really believe that and I always ask this in recruiting, ‘What will you do for the people that you love?’ and if we can create enough love in our locker room, the answer is always everything.”