FENNO: Catholic University excels with true student-athletes

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Past the strip mall on Hawaii Avenue and the tracks where Metro’s Red Line trains rumble past every few minutes is Washington’s quiet juggernaut.

Past the benches outside DuFour Center with Cardinals painted on the sides and the red bannisters and red-and-black everything else inside, basketballs thump and mismatched high-tops squeak and Steve Howes bellows encouragement.

In a city of monuments, Catholic University’s men’s basketball team is tucked in a nondescript corner of the Brookland neighborhood in the midst of a season that’s more anonymous than its surroundings. All the Cardinals seem to do is win.

The latest came Saturday, defeating the College of Staten Island in the first round of the Division III NCAA tournament after winning their first-ever Landmark Conference title last month. Up next is Williams College this Saturday.

In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2013, Catholic University coach Steve Howes talks to his team during NCAA college basketball practice in Washington. Heard about the Catholic 7, those like-minded schools planning to break away from Big East? Right now, they've got nothing on the Catholic 2, the men's and women's teams at the Division III Catholic University who are a combined 42-4. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2013, Catholic University coach Steve Howes ... more >

But this isn’t college basketball of the sort that’ll fill our television screens and brackets in a couple of weeks. No, here there’s little attention and no scholarships.

The gymnasium resembles something from a large, well-kept high school, brown bleachers pushed up out of the way for practice a few nights back. Lacrosse players drifted through and passers-by poked their heads in the open door. No one cared. Howes kept running full-court drills at a frenetic pace.

The ills of big-time college basketball, the scandals and big money and outsized egos and look-at-me announcers and early NBA departures couldn’t fit in here. There’s room for a few thousand raucous supporters and, well, that’s about it.

“It’s the purest form of athletics,” Howes said.

The coach isn’t kidding. He’s a Washington native who attended Good Counsel, in his ninth season leading Catholic University. But don’t be mistaken: This is far from a basketball backwater. George Washington’s Mike Lonergan coached here (Howes played for him). So did Jack Bruen and Tom Young. Loyola’s Jimmy Patsos played here. The list goes on.

Each time Howes steps into the gymnasium, his eyes dart to the supersized red banner in the corner. That’s from Catholic University’s Division III national championship in 2001. The banner reminds him of what he’s working for, reminds him of the tradition he hopes to reignite.

“It stares at you every day,” Howes said.

Already, the university rolled up 25 wins and is back in the tournament for the first time since 2007. The women’s team nearly matched the men, capturing the Landmark Conference title, too, and advancing to its first-ever NCAA tournament last weekend before losing the second-round game.

Look around the small gymnasium, at the red and white jerseys whirling around the court on a cold night, and the scene is almost quaint. Somehow this feels like how college basketball should be, in a place where the loudest and most dedicated support during games comes from the university’s other teams.

This is a place where Howes and his staff sometimes grab dinner in the university’s cafeteria with the students, not walled off from the rest of the world in a basketball castle.

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