By Dan Brekke
The Saint Mary’s Gaels started out in San Francisco in 1863 and moved to Oakland, before finally finding a home in the nearby hills of Moraga. In the first half of the 20th century, the school was a power in both baseball and football.
What’s bringing crowds to Saint Mary’s McKeon Pavilion now … is hoops.
The Gaels’ men’s basketball team has led the West Coast Conference all season, and has been ranked as high as 13th in the country.
Last Saturday night, McKeon, with a capacity of 3500, was packed to the rafters for a game against conference rival Santa Clara.
They’re playing a winless team in the conference. I didn’t think it would be three rows deep, standing room only,” said Kevin Phillipson. Phillipson is from Las Vegas, and has no connection to Saint Mary’s – beyond following them for years on TV.
Every fan seems to be a student of Gaels basketball, and they all know how Saint Mary’s became a Top 25 team.
“Good overseas recruiting. They get a lot of their players from Australia.”
“A few locals, a lot of Australians. Very good Australians.”
“Well, Australia, he’s got a pipeline it looks like right now.”
“Well, the Australian connection he’s got is just incredible.”
“They’ve had a handful of players from Australia,” said Barry Alves of Sacramento, a 1999 Saint Mary’s grad who was a student sportscaster for three years. He knows who to credit for building the program: coach Randy Bennett.
Saint Mary’s basketball had been in the doldrums for a long time before Bennett got here. Bennett was a first-time head coach when he was hired 11 seasons ago to turn around a team with a 2-27 record.
He said the Australian connection just kind of happened.
“We didn’t want to just settle and take guys we didn’t think could compete to win the league,” Bennett said. “We were pretty picky and we happened at the last minute before school started, we found out about a guy named Adam Caporn, who’s one of my coaches now.”
Numbers of Australians have arrived in Adam Caporn’s wake. This year’s roster features five of them, led by junior point guard Matthew Dellavedova.
The Gaels are winning because of a focus on team defense, a willingness to share the ball on offense, and a commitment to hard work.
“The hardest part is getting those guys to understand that every day matters–you want to bring your best every day,” said Bennett. “And one of the reasons we’ve been good over the last five years is we’ve had very consistent effort from our players.
But success is fragile, as the Gaels found out Wednesday night, when they were blown out on their own floor by Loyola Marymount.
Despite that loss, the team’s play has led to high expectations for this year’s postseason. Coach Bennett says that is a factor that weighs on any successful team.
“You get everybody’s best shot,” he said. “When you get ranked, and they’re going to hype that game up pretty good. They’ll have a good crowd and they’ll be ready to play. So it makes it tougher, but it also makes us tougher.”
Whatever Saint Mary’s does for the rest of this year, there’s a question hanging over the program. Can a little school, enrollment 2500, hang onto a successful coach when big-money programs come calling?
“Everybody knows that these are the good old days of Saint Mary’s basketball, and we’re in ’em,” said Barry Alves. “The mantra seems to me, [to be]: ‘Oh, will Randy Bennett take a better job,’ but it seems like he’s the best coach they’ve ever had, and he’s a coach who wants to stay and build a program.”
Bennett is in the first year of a 10-year contract. Beyond that, he says what keeps him here is a personal investment.
“I have a lot of equity in this program,” he said.
Bennett says the the place, the people, and the situation just feel right.
“If you’re happy, if you have something that you really like and really believe in, why screw it up?”
Saint Mary’s next test comes Saturday against Murray State in Kentucky.