|Tom Wagenblast guided the Eagles to victory in their program opener.
College of Saint Elizabeth Athletics photo
Saturday, Nov. 19 is a day Tom Wagenblast won't soon forget. After all, most head coaches aren't fortunate enough to witness the first collegiate game in their program's history.
Wagenblast is one of the lucky few. He was on the sideline for the first men's basketball game in the history of the College of Saint Elizabeth, an 80-65 win against King's College.
"I know I'll remember that night for the rest of my life," Wagenblast said. "It was really special."
That first game, and the two that have followed it in the last week, is the culmination of a 17-month journey that began with the college's decision in June, 2015 to admit men beginning with the 2016-17 academic year. For the previous 117 years, Saint Elizabeth had been a women's college.
Wagenblast said he was hired last August, more than a year in advance of the Eagles' inaugural men's basketball season. That gave him ample time to actively and patiently recruit the players that would form the foundation of the new program.
The small Morristown, N.J., college has an enrollment of roughly 800 students, but Wagenblast said only about 60 of those are male. That total was actually higher than initially expected for a first-year co-educational school. Of those 60 or so male students, 18 are members of the basketball team. And of those 18 players, 17 are freshmen, along with one sophomore.
That's by design, as Wagenblast wanted a young group to develop together and help establish the program's culture. Of course, the complete absence of any upperclassmen to remind new players about the importance of their academic responsibilities, among other issues, presents its own obstacles.
"I debate that decision every single day," Wagenblast said with a laugh, "because we make such freshman mistakes."
Wagenblast said he sought similar characteristics in all of his recruits -- they had to love basketball, want to play for a small school, and typically have gone under-recruited. New Jersey, a state that only stretches about 130 miles from north to south, is densely populated with Division III schools. There are 10 NJAC schools, along with Stevens, Centenary, FDU-Florham and Drew, the latter two of which are a stone's throw away from Saint Elizabeth.
That's a lot of competition for the state's top talent, so Wagenblast chose to dig a little deeper for his first class. That's how he landed Jason Saldiveri, a 20-year-old guard who didn't attend college directly after high school, but previously played for the son of Wagenblast's high school coach. The same goes for guard Marlon Hart, who went under-recruited despite possessing a natural ability to score. Through three games, Saldiveri (15.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Hart (14.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg) are the top performers on the fast-paced Eagles.
"The Division III level, I think, is special because you're getting kids who just want to graduate and play basketball," Wagenblast said. "They're not required to be here, they don't have to be doing all this extra stuff that we're telling them to do. You're allowed to just recruit people that you want to be around every day. That's special to me."
Wagenblast began his coaching career as a student manager for Rutgers before moving on to Kean, where he spent more than seven seasons as an assistant coach. Being the head coach of a new program is a unique challenge, but not one unfamiliar to the North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC).
"A lot of these guys have been in my situation already," Wagenblast said. "Bryn Athyn did it a couple years ago, Wilson did it a couple years ago."
Saint Elizabeth's second opponent this season, independent New Rochelle, also added a men's basketball team this season. Wagenblast said both teams can surprise people this season, though that might not necessarily translate into wins right away.
"It's not about winning games this year," Wagenblast said. "It's about building a program for the long haul."
The Eagles' Nov. 19 opener, which saw all 18 players play and 17 of them score, drew a sellout crowd of 456 on campus. Wagenblast said the response on campus and in the community has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to basketball, the school added a men's soccer team, and is adding men's volleyball and tennis next year.
Wagenblast's team is 1-2 through its first three games in program history, and conventional wisdom suggests the losses will continue to outpace the wins this season. But losses don't mean a lack of competitiveness, which Wagenblast is confident will be a staple of this young team.
"We can be competitive in every game that we play," Wagenblast said. "I think we should be in every game. I'm not saying we're going to win every game, but I think we can be competitive. The sooner that we learn to win close games, the sooner that we're going to win more games."
Plattsburgh State off to fast start
The Plattsburgh State men's team has won at least 19 games in each of the last four seasons, so it's hardly surprising to see the Cardinals come away with wins in their first three games this season.
The breakneck pace at which they've been winning, however, has been quite notable. Plattsburgh State scored 84, 126 and 92 points, respectively, in its three wins. Its scoring average of 100.7 points per game ranked seventh nationally entering play on Tuesday. The 126 points scored against Elms College set a new single-game program record.
Thirteen different players scored for the Cardinals in that record-setting win on Nov. 18, but it was junior guard Eli Bryant (27 points) and sophomore forward Jonathan Patron (20 points, 10 rebounds) that led the way. With three 20-point games and two double-doubles before December, Patron is well on his way to a special season.
Buffalo State (3-0) and Brockport State (4-0) are also off to solid starts in non-conference play, but Plattsburgh State remains the team to beat in the SUNYAC.
RIT improves early-season record to 4-0
Like the Plattsburgh State men, the RIT women came up short in their conference tournament final last season. While the Cardinals reached the NCAA tournament via an at-large bid, the Tigers were left on the outside looking in.
Through four games this season, RIT appears on a mission to be playing beyond the Liberty League conference tournament. The Tigers have started 4-0, including a pair of wins in California against Occidental and Whittier. RIT returned to the East Coast with a lopsided 87-49 win over Allegheny on Monday.
Junior guard Jessica Glaz set RIT's single-season scoring record last season, and is already on pace to eclipse it this season after pouring in 25 points against Whittier. She's averaging 17.8 points per game and shooting nearly 60 percent (59.5).
RIT faces Nazareth (3-1), St. John Fisher (2-2) and Buffalo State (3-1) in December before opening up conference play.
St. John Fisher once again looks solid
Wins are better than losses, but losses can often tell you more about a team. St. John Fisher has gone a combined 46-11 over the past two seasons, but after a deep NCAA tournament run in 2014-15, the Cardinals came up short in their bid for a return trip last season.
This past Sunday's 85-75 road loss to Wooster, the No. 11 team in this week's D3hoops.com men's poll, shows that St. John Fisher (3-1) is still on a level that can compete with the top teams in the country.
Senior big man Keegan Ryan led the Cardinals with 19 points and 13 rebounds, while junior guards Tyler English and Alex Sausville added 14 and 13 points, respectively. Ryan, a D3hoops.com second-team preseason All-American, has notched double-doubles in three of the Cardinals' four games this season.
St. John Fisher's next three non-conference games are against No. 18 Rochester (6-0), RIT (2-1) and Cortland (2-1).
Top 25 roundup: Rochester drops out of top 10
The Rochester women's team opened as the No. 7 team in D3hoops.com's preseason poll, but slipped to No. 11 in this week's poll after a 3-1 start.
UAA rival NYU and Empire 8 contender Stevens also received votes in the women's poll.
In the men's poll, Rochester jumped up to No. 18. Skidmore, Plattsburgh State and St. John Fisher also received votes.
Have a story idea? A fun stat? Just want to talk some hoops? I'm always happy to hear from a fellow D-III fan. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.