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Surviving the last-minute change

Salisbury men's basketball team at practice, with a new face in the middle.
Salisbury's men's basketball team practices have a new face in the middle this season.
Salisbury athletics photo
 

By Ryan Scott
D3sports.com

Often teams need adversity – losses or injuries – to find an identity and become what they’re capable of being. The Salisbury men and Trine women got their adversity out of the way early. Both teams had coaching changes after practice had already begun for the year.

Sea Gulls coach Andy Sachs and Thunder coach Ryan Gould were placed on leave in early October, with official departures announced at the end of the month. In both cases, assistant coaches were tapped to provide interim leadership for the season.

As similar as those scenarios are, the teams’ responses could not be more different.

“We all had something taken from us that we loved,” says Salisbury interim head coach Brian McDermott. “Coach Sachs was a tremendous coach for them and a great mentor for me. This is a life lesson; it’s part of growing up. You’re going to lose things you want; you’re going to lose things you love. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, so we’re staying positive and focusing on today.”

Salisbury’s coaching change played out over several weeks, often in the public eye, with frequent statements and pleas from Sea Gull players on Sachs’ behalf. Some players chose to leave the program following the turnover, but those who remain have used the challenge as motivation and as a means of becoming incredibly close.

“A couple guys left, which you totally understand,” says senior captain Chase Kumor, “They didn’t come here for the whirlwind they experienced. The guys we have left, though, aren’t going anywhere. It built a whole different level of trust for all of us. We’re all in.”

That trust is evident on the floor, with every player – one through 11 – giving encouragement and acting like coaches on the bench. “These guys believed in what they were doing before I ever met them,” says McDermott, who played on Salisbury’s Elite Eight team in the ‘90s. “If life deals you a rotten hand and you get through it, you’re going to be stronger. No one else in the nation has gone through what we’ve been through.”

No other men’s team, anyway. The Trine women have increased their profile with twenty win seasons each of the last two years. Their crashing of the Hope-Calvin party in the MIAA coincided with Gould’s four-year tenure. Perhaps as a testament to the Trine culture, the team has handled the change largely by ignoring it.

“We didn’t dwell on it a lot,” says interim head coach Andy Ring, previously an assistant coach and assistant athletic director. “We talked about it a couple times, then we let it go. We can’t control what happens outside the basketball court. We dealt with it head on and then we moved on.”

“The one thing we’re focused on here at Trine is playing basketball,” adds senior Cassidy Williams. “We’re keeping what’s off the court off the court and focusing on each game as it comes.”

Brandi Dawson
Brandi Dawson has started her senior season in the same consistent manner she's played three other seasons for Trine.
Trine athletics photo
 

So far, that’s been successful. The Thunder are 5-1, with the loss being a two point heartbreaker to No. 21 DePauw. All-American Brandi Dawson is back for her senior year, but the team lost MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, Hayley Martin, and are incorporating eight freshmen into the team this season. “The freshmen are very comfortable and always wanting to get better,” says Dawson. “They’re a hardworking group and very skilled.”

Those freshmen, as typical on a successful team with veteran leadership, aren’t getting a ton of time now, but they’ll be integral to the second unit going forward, especially as the Thunder tackle conference play, starting this weekend.

“You have to give your all every night [in the MIAA],” says Williams, “Our freshman year we’d lose close games on the road and even at home. Now we know we can’t afford to let even one game go or we won’t win the conference.”

One early lapse for Trine has been defense, likely a hangover from the loss of Martin, who served as stopper. The Thunder allowed an average of just 39 points to Frostburg and host Marietta in winning their tournament last weekend. “So far this season we’ve played three tournament teams from last year,” says Ring, “To beat Oberlin and Marietta on their home floors will only help us, because our schedule doesn’t get any easier.

Salisbury’s schedule is similarly tough. Having already beaten then No. 15 Johns Hopkins as well as Virginia Wesleyan on the road, the Sea Gulls head to Springfield over the holiday break where they play the host team and either Nichols or Eastern Connecticut in addition to the CAC schedule to come.

“I believe we’re tournament-bound,” says McDermott, “But we’ve got to focus on each day and do the little things it takes to get there. When we do win, it’s not because of me; it’s the wisdom I’ve learned from other people – mentors and coaches – and it’s the players trusting and helping each other.”

“Unique is the perfect word for it,” says Kumor, “I’ve never been a part of a team where everyone has a say. It’s not an ego-thing where everyone has something to say, it’s to keep other guys in check or calm them down. It’s something special. We all have each other’s backs.”

Salisbury battled back from 16 down in the second half to beat a young, athletic Washington College team Monday night, but there was no hint of doubt. “I was trying not to panic,” says McDermott, “but these guys are stone cold. They said, ‘We got this coach; we just need to play better,’ and they went out and did it.”

That kind of support is great for a first year head coach, like McDermott, an experienced high school coach, but one who went from volunteer assistant to the head job in record time. He says, “I was a shop teacher last month! It’s a huge learning curve, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

No one knows what the future will hold for Salisbury. They are not the most talented team in the country, but they do possess a special something that’s usually far more important to winning. McDermott tells a story that illustrates this perfectly: “We’re undefeated right now because we’ve got great kids who work hard and buy in. Damian Hamler was our 15th man to start the season. He stood up at the team dinner and said, ‘I realize I may not get in any games, but I’m still happy to be here.’

“Well, after everything, he’s our tenth man now. He got two minutes the other night and he thanked me afterwards, just for being able to be part of the team. We need him, not just for the attitude, but we need ten guys in practice.”

Everyone is essential to the team. It’s more than any one person, no matter how much responsibility or authority they’ve been given. Some teams go whole seasons without figuring that out; others become well aware before the ball is ever tipped. Trine and Salisbury have special circumstances in the 2018-19 season, but those circumstances might just be what makes the season special, too.

I asked Dawson and Williams about what legacy they’d like to leave for this large freshman class and those coming after them at Trine. They had the right perspective: looking forward, not back. Whatever the difficulties that have come and been overcome, they are not the end and they can’t be the focus. “Get back to us after the season’s over. We still have games to play!”

[Click here to read full column]


Columnist

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon

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