Coaching change in the Cards

Mike Grosodonia (left) and Rob Kornaker (right) worked closely together as coaches and friends at St. John Fisher last season.
Photo by St. John Fisher, athletics

Mike Grosodonia and Rob Kornaker have shared a close friendship for years, so the former wasn't surprised when the latter asked to talk. Most head coaches speak to their assistant coaches on a daily basis, after all.
 
The subject and timing of the conversation, however, took Grosodonia by surprise. On Oct. 2, roughly six weeks before St. John Fisher's season opener, Kornaker announced his resignation after a wildly-successful 17-year run as the Cardinals' head coach. St. John Fisher moved quickly to name Grosodonia, Kornaker's top assistant coach in 2016-17, its interim head coach two days later. 
 
"It was a little shocking, especially when he told me," Grosodonia said. "It was emotional for me because we're such good friends. I had so much fun coaching with him last year."
 
Kornaker's list of accomplishments is as lengthy as it is impressive.
 
Since taking over as the Cardinals' head coach in 2001-02, Kornaker guided the team to seven Empire 8 conference titles and eight NCAA postseason trips, including four runs to the Sweet 16 and one run to the Elite Eight. Kornaker's 318 wins are the most in program history and his .716 winning percentage ranked 14th all-time among Division III coaches with at least five seasons coached. He was also a nine-time recipient of the Empire 8 Coach of the Year Award, and nine times guided St. John Fisher to 20-win seasons, including a program-record 28 wins in 2005-06.
 
On the surface, there was no obvious reason why Kornaker should step down. He was at the top of his game, leading one of the region's premier basketball programs. But Grosodonia knows Kornaker as more than a coach; he knows him as a friend, husband, and father. Kornaker's decision to step down as head coach had nothing to do with his passion for basketball and everything to do with his love for his family.
 
Kornaker's son Griffin played for Grosodonia at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., for two seasons before enrolling at Suffield Academy, a boarding school in Suffield, Conn. Had Griffin opted to play for his father at St. John Fisher, Rob would likely still be the Cardinals' head coach. But son opted for Middlebury, a perennial NESCAC contender in Vermont coming off a run to the NCAA quarterfinals last season, and father stepped down to ensure he could become a fully dedicated and supportive sports parent.
 
Grosodonia's successful run at the high school level culminated with Aquinas' first New York State Public High School Athletic Association State title in 2016. Sean Coffey, Kornaker's top assistant from 2011-2016 and also a friend of Grosodonia, had recently accepted the head coaching job at Utica. Kornaker asked if Grosodonia was interested in filling his spot.
 
"Honestly, I really didn't know if I wanted to do it," Grosodonia said. "I was coaching phys ed, I had a great program going. But I just felt like if I didn't give it a chance, would I have always regretted it? It was a great opportunity because it was local, I didn't have to move my family."
 
Grosodonia said his dream had always been to coach varsity basketball and teach physical education in high school. In other words, exactly what he had at Aquinas. Grosodonia wrestled with his decision, but ultimately decided to take the offer. One year later, he has joined Bobby Wanzer, current athletic director Bob Ward, and Kornaker as the fourth head coach in the 54-year history of the program.
 
"I sit here now and I think my vision is I'd love to be at Fisher for 30 years," Grosodonia said. "I grew up in Rochester, I went to high school here, I went to college here, all my family is here."
 
Grosodonia ran the Cardinals' offense last season, in addition to handling a majority of practice planning, while Kornaker handled all of the foundational program duties: recruiting, class schedules, meals, hotels and travel, holiday break plans, and the like. That's been the steepest learning curve, Grosodonia said, but one that's been aided by Ward and Kornaker, who both continue to offer daily support in any way they can.
 
St. John Fisher returned the majority of its roster from last season's 23-6 squad, save for one major exception: All-American forward Keegan Ryan. The void left by the four-year standout big man figures to have a more direct impact on the Cardinals' in-game approach this season than the departure of Kornaker.
 
"We don't have Keegan anymore," Grosodonia said. "We tried to pound the ball into him a lot last year. This year we're more guard-oriented and spreading the floor out and trying to share it and give every guy opportunities."
 
Grosodonia said the Cardinals will focus on pushing the ball in transition with senior Tyler English, junior Ryan Henderson, sophomore Sammy Robinson, senior Alex Sausville, and sophomore Dennis Hare, all of whom are guards. Sausville and Hare have battled injuries early in the season, so the upcoming holiday break is arriving at an ideal time.
 
Defense remains an area of focus, Grosodonia said, but the Cardinals have started 2-4 after Thursday night's 82-64 loss to No. 17 Rochester. New coach or not, this is still St. John Fisher, and the expectations remain high.
 
"If we get healthy and figure out some of the defensive stuff, I think we'll be OK," Grosodonia said.

Looking ahead

This space is normally reserved for roundup items on specific teams and players, as well as notable performances and Top 25 poll results. But since this is the first column of the season, and most teams have played only a few games, I wanted to quickly recap the top contenders for each of the East's conferences in 2017-18. College basketball is back!

Empire 8
 
Last season Ithaca and Stevens finished tied atop the regular-season standings, with Hartwick finishing just one game back. The Bombers are now a member of the Liberty League, leaving Stevens, Hartwick and St. John Fisher as the top contenders in the Empire 8.
 
Liberty League

Ithaca's women's team won the Empire 8 conference tournament and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, before falling to SUNY New Paltz last season. The Bombers are off to a fast 6-1 start this season, including a 2-0 mark in Liberty League play. Ithaca and RIT shared the No. 1 spot in the preseason poll, ahead of Skidmore.
 
On the men's side, Hobart was voted as the preseason favorite, but it's Skidmore that boasts that most dangerous player in junior guard Edvinas Rupkus, a D3hoops.com second-team preseason All-American.
 
SUNYAC

The Oswego State men's team finished 21-7 en route to SUNYAC regular-season and conference-tournament titles last season. But the Lakers' season ended with a tough first-round NCAA overtime loss to Scranton. Cortland is off to a strong start in 2017, having won five of its first six games, including two SUNYAC matchups.
 
The SUNY Geneseo women's team put together a remarkable 2016-17 season, finishing 28-2, a record that included a perfect 18-0 mark against SUNYAC opponents. The Knights were upset by SUNY New Paltz, 58-57, in the conference tournament title game, but reached the NCAA tournament as an at-large entry and advanced to the Sweet 16. Geneseo sits at 6-1 (2-0 SUNYAC) in the early stages of the 2017-18 season.

NEAC

Defending men's champion Morrisville State was ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll. The Mustangs return last season's conference Rookie of the Year in sophomore forward Kevin Dennis.
 
On the women's side, SUNYIT is favored to repeat as conference champions for a third straight season. Last season, the Wildcats finished 26-3 and returned to the NCAA tournament. Standout guard Stevie Ray is gone, but seniors Paige Gallo and Khristaijah Jackson both return.

And that's not all

The East region also includes UAA teams NYU and Rochester, ACAA teams Alfred State and SUNY Canton, and independent New Rochelle. Of this group, the two Rochester teams stand out as perennial postseason contenders. The Rochester women advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, after an Elite Eight appearance two years ago. The men finished 24-5 last season, advancing to the Elite Eight.

Contact me

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 andrew.lovell@d3sports.com, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.


Justin Goldberg

Andrew Lovell is a writer based in Connecticut and a former online news editor for ESPN.com, as well as a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has written feature stories for ESPN.com, currently contributes fantasy football content to RotoBaller.com, and has been a regular contributor to D3sports.com sites since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing.