Piety vs. March Madness

The Baltimore Sun

EMMITSBURG -- Her Catholic parents generally keep days like Good Friday solemn by shunning technology, and if that holds true tonight, Mount St. Mary's University senior Maria Parker will find herself in a predicament.

Should she sneak off to watch her school attempt to topple top-ranked and No. 1-seeded North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, a feat that would be one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history? Or does she stay firm to the reasons Mount St. Mary's closed its doors and sent students away from campus for three school days -- to reflect on the Easter season and spend time with family?

Other students and staff members at Mount St. Mary's, considered one of the nation's most pious schools, asked similar questions this week, as the lure of what some fans say is the most exciting amateur event of the sports year meets with one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.

With what could be considered the school's biggest game ever -- Mount St. Mary's vs. the University of North Carolina -- set to be played on national television at 7:10 p.m. today, Parker was searching for the right behavior.

"There's TiVo. I could record it and watch it the next day," the 21-year-old theology major said. "I know we're going to go to Stations of the Cross, but after that, I may be able to watch it when we get back."

Mount St. Mary's is the nation's second-oldest Catholic university. The Newman Guide, which recommends the top Catholic schools, rates Mount St. Mary's among the top 21 universities nationwide in upholding the religion's identity, an accolade school administrators cherish.

Jason Werden, a junior and vice president of the student government association, said he was unsure whether he would drive to Raleigh or go home to spend Easter weekend with his parents in Ocean Pines.

"Obviously we're a Catholic school. The students hold true to that," Werden said. "It will be Good Friday, and it won't be forgotten.

"At the same time, we have something else to think about too, which is really great for everybody," Werden said. "If everyone goes to Mass around noon, then from Mass to the bar to the game, that's probably the way it will go down."

Mount St. Mary's is making just its third appearance in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, an event marked by buzzer beaters and inevitable Cinderella teams that bust brackets by making a deep run.

Across the campus of this small college in Western Maryland's hills, students and basketball fans who are religious find themselves with the same conflict.

Because this will be the earliest Easter since 1913, students and faculty were left balancing religious and family obligations with a rare chance to watch the basketball team compete on a national stage.

The towns that surround the school are not experiencing any such debate. As people's interest in Mount St. Mary's basketball has grown in the past couple of weeks, so have the crowds at the Ott House Restaurant and Starvos Pizza in Emmitsburg during the past two nationally televised games.

A banner hangs at the Ott House saying "Go Mount." The restaurant saw 100 extra customers, about half students, half residents, for the Mountaineers' win over Coppin State in the play-in game Tuesday, said the manager of the restaurant, Lauri Harley.

The run to the tournament is all the locals are talking about, according to Maggie Doll, a lifelong resident of the area.

Doll, 55, owns a liquor store in nearby Thurmont and says beer sales have increased significantly since the Mount began its run.

"Everybody is talking about it. Even people who don't like basketball," Doll said. "My husband doesn't watch basketball, but he's been watching the Mount."

Jim Phelan, the wildly popular, bow-tie-wearing coach who guided the program to 830 wins in 49 years before retiring in 2003, appeared Wednesday night at the Ott House. Phelan's tenure is an NCAA record for most seasons coached at one school.

Phelan said he has seen Emmitsburg galvanized by the Mount's basketball team before, and likened the excitement surrounding tonight's game to 1999, the last time the team made the tournament.

"The town has grown," Phelan said. "We've got two stoplights now. We had one for all those years. Now we've got two. It's exciting. It's exciting for all the people."

But because of the holy day, the excitement is a bit of a problem for the Catholic students.

Every year, the school shuts down and encourages students to go home to honor Good Friday and Easter, and this week was no different, even as its basketball squad delves into March Madness.

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, the campus was abandoned, absent of any banners or signs of the game.

But the game was too tempting for some to pass up. The school's 75-student ticket allotment was sold out within minutes, although Sean Adams, an assistant dean and director of campus activities at the Mount, said some students wrestled with the choice.

"If we're going to call ourself a Catholic school, we've got to take that seriously. That's why we give the time away, so people can be with their family and practice their faith in a away that's appropriate for them," Adams said. "A lot of students had that debate over 'Do I go to the game because it's Good Friday? How do I balance being committed to my team and being committed to my faith?' It's great to hear the students think about that kind of stuff."

Founded in 1808 and celebrating its bicentennial this year, Mount St. Mary's -- more than an hour northwest of Baltimore -- bills its family atmosphere, a place where students say everybody knows everybody. The 1,500 undergraduates make up one of the smallest enrollments of any Division I school in the country.

Gabbi Soliz, 19, is a sophomore on the dance team, which performs during home games. She says she is among the students who will be at the game.

"Since it's Holy Week, it makes it a little bit more difficult for people to go," Soliz said. "But for the diehard fans, I think they'll pray for God to forgive them to go to the game. It's brought some conflict but ... we really can't do anything about it."

Soliz later added, "Not everyone who goes to school is a diehard Catholic. We go to church and everything, but it's flexible. It's not like you can't enjoy the game and be with your family. The people who are in campus ministry and do religious things for the school may find conflict, but for my personal opinion, I don't think it's a big conflict."

The townspeople, more than the students, are realists. A David vs. Goliath analogy to describe this first-round matchup might overstate the Mount's chance of victory. North Carolina is favored by 25 points, the second-highest line of any tournament game. The Tar Heels have won four national titles, including one in 2005.

Students are holding out hope for an Easter miracle.

"We'll have faith on our side," said Werden, the SGA vice president. "That's something the Mount always has had an edge in."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

NCAA today

UMBC vs. Georgetown, approx. 2:55 p.m.; Mount St. Mary's vs. North Carolina, 7:10 p.m. TV: Chs 13, 9

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