- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Mike Lonergan waited not so patiently to receive a Division I head coaching job. He turned Catholic University into one of Division III’s top programs — including a national championship in 2001 — but was routinely shunned by college’s top level.

He spent 12 years at Catholic, winning the conference’s regular-season title his final seven seasons and making the NCAA tournament each time. Regardless of what he accomplished, no one looked past the D-III moniker and saw an excellent strategist, strong manager and skilled recruiter — particularly in the tricky field of nonscholarship sports.

Fast forward to this season.

Lonergan is in his second season at D-I Vermont. The Catamounts lead the America East Conference with an 8-1 record and are 16-6 overall. Vermont has won four straight and 11 of its last 12.

Suddenly, the coach, whom D-I athletic directors struggled to take seriously, is on the fast track. The 40-year-old does not have time to savor the ride. The former Catholic point guard who seldom stops moving and talks in rapid-fire fashion is too busy stressing about his next game against Boston University.

The road from the District to Burlington came with a layover in College Park. Lonergan believed the only way he could move up was to get some Division I experience, even if it mean taking a step back. He left Catholic after the 2003-04 season to become an assistant at Maryland, replacing his former Catholic teammate Jimmy Patsos, who got a job at Loyola in Baltimore despite never being a head coach at any level.

Lonergan’s move paid off even if he had to take a subservient role and often feel the bluster of Gary Williams during the NIT season of 2004-05. Suddenly, he was deemed worthy and got the top job at Vermont.

It seemed like a less-than-ideal situation, considering he was replacing legendary coach Tom Brennan after the greatest season in school history. The Catamounts had upset Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, but had to deal with the loss of four starters.

“A lot of people said, ‘Don’t take that job. There is no way to go but down,’ ” Lonergan said. “But I had interviewed for a lot of jobs. I couldn’t be choosy.”

It did not take long for Lonergan to get things rolling in the Green Mountain State. In his first season, he led them to the conference title game, where they lost at Albany.

The Catamounts served notice early this season with a win at then 14th-ranked Boston College. They have been grinding out wins the same way his Catholic teams did with solid fundamentals, particularly in rebounding and on defense. Vermont is outrebounding opponents by nearly nine a game and holding them to 42 percent shooting.

Vermont has won eight consecutive road games, and has been winning lately without its second-leading scorer and top recruit Joe Trapani (14.7 ppg), who is out with a foot injury. Center Chris Holm entered the week third in the nation with 11.5 rebounds a game. The 6-foot-11 center provided a 24-point, 18-rebound performance in Wednesday’s double-overtime win over New Hampshire.

“If you just follow the system, we have enough good players, if everybody just does their jobs, we can win even on an off-shooting night,” Lonergan said.

The “system” has not changed. Lonergan may not have an extensive resume at D-I, but maybe he was even better prepared by running and winning on a shoestring budget in obscurity in Division III.

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