You can excuse coach Chris Harney for feeling a little beaten up this season. His St. Mary's College of Maryland men's basketball team reeled with five straight losses at midseason and struggled much of the year with team defense.
When the Seahawks lost at York on Feb. 9, they were a middling 11-11 team, seemingly headed nowhere.
Six straight wins later, they're bound for Greensboro, N.C., and their first NCAA Division III tournament. Harney knew the team wouldn't quit in February, but he didn't know it was about to throw a knockout punch of its own.
"This whole season is like a Rocky movie," Harney said. "Like in Rocky III, we were taking a real beating. During the five-game losing streak, if you told me we'd win the league and go on to the NCAA, I probably would have looked at you like you were crazy."
St. Mary's (17-11) completed its unlikely march on Greensboro on Saturday, beating No. 2 seed Mary Washington in the championship game of the Capital Athletic Conference as a No. 4 seed.
The reward was a berth in the South regional tomorrow at 8 p.m. against host Guilford (24-4) and the Quakers' 6-foot-11 star, Ben Strong, two-time Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year and reigning Division III Player of the Year. Strong averages 25.4 points and 10.9 rebounds.
Harney says he isn't daunted by the challenge.
"I would put it this way: If I were Guilford, I would be worried about drawing us because we're a team that faced all kinds of adversity and moved past it to be successful," he said.
The Seahawks are nothing if not resilient. After they lost Mike Bowden to a severe ankle sprain in the semifinals of the CAC tournament, 6-5 freshman Kyle Jarczynski (Calvert Hall) stepped in capably and played 19 meaningful minutes in the championship game.
Harney, an alumnus in his third year as coach, will assign 6-5 Calvin Wise (Calvert Hall) and 6-7 Alex Irmer to defend Guilford's Strong. "Calvin," Harney said, "could bench press four 6-10 players. He's strong as an ox."
Harney, who went 41-27 in three years at Bel Air High, rescued St. Mary's from "basketball purgatory" by recruiting Maryland heavily. Jarczynski, Wise and T.J. Jordan all grew up in Bel Air. Bowden and Mike Smelkinson came from Long Reach, leading scorer Tyson Lesesne (17.9 points per game) from Edgewood, Kyle Sullivan from River Hill and Alex Franz from Cardinal Gibbons.
St. Mary's averaged seven wins in four years before Harney arrived.
"I tried to sell the kids on 'creating your own history,'" he said. "It's neat to start some real tradition.
"We're not going into this game with apprehension. We will play hard. There's no magic defense or junk defense to approach [Guilford]. We'll go at them with our blue-collar approach."