EMMITSBURG — If you like your March Madness stories improbable, this is the team for you.
The Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers are a rag-tag group of transfers and unsung recruits who, two years ago, watched their previous coach resign midway through an 8-21 season. Their current coach, Jamion Christian, is all of 31 years old with two years experience heading a program.
They lost their first five games of the season and stood 3-9 when the calendar turned to 2014.
They trailed by eight with less than a minute to go in the opening game of the Northeast Conference tournament.
In the final, they faced conference bully Robert Morris on its home court in Pittsburgh.
But the Mount won that game and not by a little. And with three high-scoring seniors leading an all-court attack Christian has dubbed "Mayhem," this group hungers to prove it's more than a cutesy story from the hills of rural Maryland.
"I want to enjoy the moment, but I also want to win some games," says senior Julian Norfleet, the Mount's all-conference point guard. "Everybody looks at it as being a Cinderella story. But I think we really have a chance. The way we play, it's so hard for teams to prepare for us."
The Mountaineers (16-16) will get their chance Tuesday night in the against Albany in the First Four, and if they win that one, two days later against No. 1 Florida.
They'll do so as the last team standing from a group of Maryland schools that seemed full of more likely Big Dance candidates when the season dawned in November.
Seniors Norfleet, Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott — who average 46.2 points between them — will tell you it's no surprise. They watched this team remain calm and unified through a ferocious early schedule.
Perhaps they earned their serenity by enduring chaos to rebuild a program from rubble. Or perhaps it flows from their endlessly upbeat coach, who walked the same footsteps as a Mount captain a decade before.
'I owe my entire life to this place'
Describing Christian as baby-faced rather understates his youthful sheen.
As he ducks into the campus' old gym for his team's first practice since its NEC triumph, the coach's wiry frame appears almost lost in a baggy Mount sweatsuit. Later, he'll jump into the fray and, with his cap flipped backwards, look like just another player.
The Mountaineers don't usually practice in this space, which looks like nothing so much as a musty, abandoned airplane hangar. But they've been displaced from their arena by a baton-twirling tournament.
"I like it," Christian says with an impish grin. "We need to get the confetti sweat off these guys."
This isn't your typical hot young coach, looking to carve another notch on his resume with an improbable turnaround at some out-of-the-way locale. As Christian will happily tell you, the Mount played a major part in making him a man. It's a legacy he yearns to carry forward.
With surrounding farmland sloping gently up to the Catoctin Mountains and a decided lack of cosmopolitan bustle, this place presents an alien picture to the city kids who fill the Mount's roster. At about 2,000 students, the 208-year-old Catholic university is smaller than some high schools.
"It's an intimate campus where people actually care about you," says Christian, a 2004 graduate. "I know that sounds really simple. But I can't tell you how many professors I come across every day, who were here when I was here as a player, who really helped me."
Reflecting on that 17-year-old who arrived from New Kent, Va., Christian says he wasn't ready to be a college student, academically or personally.
"And the professors here put their arms around me," he says. "They made sure not just that I went to class but that I understood what it took to be a successful college student. By the end, I was able to turn myself into it. I owe my entire life to this place."
His chief mentor was the Mount's legendary coach, Jim Phelan, who guided the program to 830 wins in a still-astonishing 49 years. Christian was part of the last class to play for Phelan and served as his captain for two seasons.
"I was 17 when I committed here, and he took a chance on me," Christian says. "I didn't really pay off for him as a basketball player. But I like to think my reward has been in coming back here and trying to continue his legacy through the work we do every day. He's been a guy who coaches me every day since I was 17 years old."
In fact, Phelan, now 84, still stops by his former player's office to share insight on various experiences, coaching and otherwise.
Christian's career took an unexpected twist when Milan Brown replaced Phelan before his senior season. Though he remained a captain for Brown, he no longer played much.
"I came in as a pass-first point guard and left as a poor-shooting two guard," he says, laughing.
But where others might have been bitter, Christian enjoyed the non-playing opportunities Brown gave him — the scouting reports he delivered on conference rivals, the final pre-game words he murmured before the team left the locker room. He didn't quite grasp it at the time, but his inner coach was springing to life.
After graduation, he apprenticed at three college programs, then earned what he calls his "doctorate" as an assistant to Shaka Smart at burgeoning powerhouse Virginia Commonwealth.
Christian observed the way Smart applied his youthful energy to every facet of coaching, the way he actually dialed back his intensity when other coaches might have pressed. "You stay positive with guys at the bleakest moments," he says, describing the leadership philosophy he inherited.
And things were certainly bleak at his alma mater.
'Trial and error'
Previous coach Robert Burke recruited the best players on Mountaineers' current team. But they won infrequently on Burke's watch, and the situation grew even more unsettled when he resigned midway through the 2011-2012 season, citing a personal matter.
"It was a really confusing time for us," says Prescott, who was sitting out the season after transferring from Marist. "We didn't know where we were going as a team."
Christian would eradicate that uncertainty with his relentless optimism and frenetic on-court system. He introduced the players to Mayhem right away, telling them the Mount would press from end to end and rain 3-pointers on baffled opponents.
"Everything was so much faster," Whack says.
In order to play that way, Christian needed to build a foundation in practice. They ran in weight vests, hauled logs and performed drills in the mud.
"We definitely had some military-type training," Norfleet says.
The work paid off with a run to last year's NEC tournament final. But the results didn't carry over to the beginning of this season, despite the team's returning scoring punch. A brutal schedule was partly to blame, with the Mount falling in road games against Villanova, BYU and Michigan State.
What seemed like scheduling madness was actually method, as Christian aimed to make his crew "battle tested" for March.
"Don't worry about it," Prescott remembers telling younger players. "This is trial and error right here. You've got to get knocked down to learn how to pick yourself back up."
Prescott, a Philadelphia native, is the quietest of the senior leaders. Whack, a Hyattsville kid who calls comedian Martin Lawrence his godfather, is the goofiest. "I'm probably the even medium between them," says Virginia Beach product Norfleet, who has been in Emmitsburg the longest.
With that trio clicking, the Mountaineers played better in conference and truly found themselves in the NEC tournament, staging a furious rally against St. Francis (Pa.) and then beating a hot Wagner team to set up the showdown at Robert Morris.
Christian heard his senior leaders predicting victory in the shower after the Wagner game. Their hype-free certainty eased his mind. When friends wished him good luck, he texted back: "We got this."
The Mountaineers seemed loose as could be, taking in a pair of action movies, "Non-Stop" and "300: Rise of an Empire," as they waited for gametime. They jumped on Robert Morris early and watched as their opponents, who had beaten them twice during the regular season, lost composure. The final was 88-71.
Prescott describes the following two days on campus as "rockstaresque."
Moments after the Robert Morris victory, Norfleet's phone was cluttered with 120 congratulatory texts, most from Mount people. The players are used to knowing almost everyone at the cozy university. But they couldn't get through class without someone bringing up March Madness or requesting an autograph.
All that receded as they got back to the court Friday afternoon, ricocheting from one fast-paced drill to the next as Christian simulated his Mayhem. He was right there among them — laughing, hooting, donning oversized red arm pads to play smothering defense on his guys.
It all looks like pure joy, the kind you imagine as a young player dreaming of March, the kind the Mount had lost a few years back.
"I look back at pictures and videos from when I was freshman," Norfleet says. "And then to see where we are now, the journey we've been on with all the ups and downs. It's crazy."
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