Lonergan rebuilds Vermont

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Mike Lonergan has gone from being a legend to replacing one.

Lonergan, who led Catholic University to the Division III national championship in 2000, is now in his second season at Division I Vermont. He took over the program after Tom Brennan led it to a third consecutive NCAA tournament and immediately following the greatest win in school history, the 13th-seeded Catamounts’ upset of fourth-seeded Syracuse in overtime in the 2005 NCAA tournament.

“A lot of people said, ‘Don’t take that job. There is no way to go but down,’ ” said Lonergan, who left Catholic after 12 seasons and spent one season as an assistant at Maryland before moving to Vermont. “But I had interviewed for a lot of jobs. I couldn’t be choosy. I thought it was a pretty good fit because I had dealt with good academic students throughout my career and that is what I would have to do there.”

Brennan, who retired after 19 seasons and now has a daily radio show in Burlington, wasn’t the only one who left the program. Also gone were the four four-year starters who helped turn the Catamounts into the America East Conference’s dominant team.

So the 40-year-old Lonergan is continuing his rebuilding process this season. He got off to a solid start last night when Vermont opened the season with an 82-65 win over New Orleans in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Comcast Center. Freshman Joe Tripani made an impressive debut with 20 points, hitting all three of his 3-pointers. The Catamounts will face Maryland tonight in College Park.

Vermont surprised many last season, finishing with a 13-17 record and reaching the conference championship game. They return all five starters, led by last season’s rookie of the year Mike Trimboli, who averaged 14.0 points and 5.5 assists last season. Vermont also added the 6-foot-7 Trapani, whom Lonergan sees as perhaps the critical recruit in rebuilding the program.

“I was shocked at how low the talent level was when I got here,” said Lonergan, who led Catholic to seven consecutive Division III tournaments. “Now we have a normal team coming back. We are a much deeper team because of recruiting. I no longer look down the bench and say, ‘Who am I going to steal minutes with?’ I really like our team. We have a good frontcourt.”

Chris Holm, a 6-11 senior, anchors the post along with 6-8 Martin Klimes, a senior from the Czech Republic, and 6-8 sophomore Colin McIntosh. While there is some experience in the starting lineup, the bench is almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores.

Even so, expectations are again starting to rise in the Green Mountain State. Some publications have picked the Catamounts as high as second in the America East, behind only defending champion Albany.

And Lonergan has put together a menacing nonconference schedule in hopes of preparing his team for conference play. Vermont will visit Boston College on Monday and travel to Michigan State later this month. Only one of its first eight games will be at home, where the Catamounts regularly pack 3,266-seat Patrick Gym.

“We can come out of the gate 1-7 or 0-8, but I still think we are pretty good,” Lonergan said. “I kind of overscheduled purposely. We have to survive this early schedule and keep our guys together and confident.”

Playing top teams and good mid-majors has attracted recruits — and so has Lonergan’s winning track record and his relentless recruiting.

Trapani, who is from a town 41/2 hours away in Connecticut, was familiar with Vermont because his father played there. However, he did not seriously consider the school until major programs Boston College and West Virginia backed off and Lonergan followed him constantly to camps in the summer of 2005.

“Big schools were interested but wanted me to go to prep school before they would offer scholarships,” Trapani said. “Vermont, Davidson, Quinnipiac and Vermont were the ones looking at me. Vermont was an up-and-coming team. I knew [Lonergan] was a winning coach at Catholic, and he coached at Maryland.”

And while Lonergan eventually will be compared to Brennan, who reached three NCAA tournaments after not going to any in his first 16 seasons, he is more concerned right now about getting his team competitive in the league.

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