- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

SALEM, Va. Coach Mike Lonergan and the Catholic University basketball players have come to the understated Final Four, the Division III version, just off Interstate 81 in the Roanoke Valley, far removed from the overhyped goings-on in Idaho and elsewhere.

There's no massive hoopla, no round-the-clock coverage from ESPN, no Dick Vitale or Billy Packer. There's no Jon Voight either.

"That was the worst movie, just terrible," Catholic assistant coach G.J. Kissal said yesterday following the team's practice at the Salem Civic Center.

The movie was "Anaconda," made in 1997, and in it, Voight was crushed to death at the end by an incredibly large snake.

"But he was brilliant in it," said Kissal.

Voight was a basketball player who had an interest in painting and drama during his undergraduate days at Catholic. Before graduating in 1960, Voight painted the Cardinal at center court in the old Brookland Gymnasium, now the classroom home of architects-to-be.

So where is Voight, if he is not here or en route to the game?

Lonergan sends basketball-related materials to Voight's publicist each year. He never receives an acknowledgment back from the publicist or Voight.

Although Lonergan has purchased nearly 40 tickets at a cost of about $500, he is reluctant to leave a ticket at the gate for Voight today.

"Maybe [sports information director] Chris McManes will leave him one," Lonergan said. "I wish he would come. I'd like to meet him."

Lonergan tried to meet Ed McMahon in 1996, when he and the basketball team were in California to compete in the Whittier Poet Classic.

Thinking it would be neat to rub elbows with one of Catholic's famous alumni, Lonergan purchased one of those Hollywood Map of the Stars for $5 and went in search of Johnny Carson's human laugh track.

Following a number of false leads and wrong turns, Lonergan found what the map indicated to be McMahon's home.

Knock-knock. No answer. Knock-knock. No answer. All the while, Lonergan was thinking, "Is this really the guy's home?" He finally pinned a note to the door in the hope he would hear back from McMahon before the team left town. He didn't.

"I felt like Publishing Clearinghouse," said Lonergan.

Susan Sarandon, who wears more ribbons than a Banana Republic dictator, is expected to be a no-show as well.

Didn't she and Jack Bruen wind up in a class together at Catholic? That is part of the story anyway. The rest of the story is she became more attractive after she left Catholic, if not politically nuttier.

The light banter masks what has been an anxiety-filled week for Lonergan. He has not slept much since his team defeated Clark (Mass.) University six days ago. The demands on his time have increased considerably, while tonight's game, the biggest in the Cardinals' 90-season history, has dominated his thoughts.

"I'm a little nervous," he said. "I'll be glad when it's time to throw up the jump ball."

The Cardinals (26-5) have shown a remarkable capacity to win the close games this season. In games decided by five or fewer points, they are 9-2. One of those two losses was to Columbia, a Division I team from the Ivy League.

Catholic's opponent, Ohio Northern, is carrying a 27-2 record and 18-game winning streak into the game. The Polar Bears, coached by Joe Campoli, are participating in their 10th national tournament since 1980. They won the Division III national championship in 1993. Don't remind the Catholic coach.

"We're going to have to play well against them," Lonergan said, reverting to coachspeak. "But we'll be all right. Our guys played tough against two Division I opponents this season; beat one of them. We played Princeton and American last season. We just have to get out there and play."

Pat Maloney, the Cardinals' senior point guard from Brant Beach, N.J., who is averaging a team-high 15.2 points and 4.8 assists a game, has noticed one encouraging element of the Polar Bears after viewing them on film.

"They don't play pressure defense, and that's good," he said. "We've had problems with turnovers this season."

The Cardinals average more turnovers than assists a game, 15.4 turnovers vs. 13.5 assists, a statistical no-no they have been able to overcome.

The Cardinals are healthy, certain to be tough, if only because of the lesson that stares out at them back on campus. Wally Pipp's plaque hangs on the Hall of Fame wall at the DuFour Center. It was Pipp who was replaced by Lou Gehrig after coming down with a headache before a game, and the rest is baseball lore.

The Catholic coaches and players received a warm sendoff from about 200 students before climbing aboard their chartered bus Wednesday evening. It was a fairly exciting occasion for a team accustomed to playing before crowds in the three digits.

"This is all new to us," sophomore center Matt Hilleary said.

It is not the Division I Final Four, in terms of the trappings, but the sense of purpose is the same.

"They have more hype, the better players, the bigger arena," said Hilleary.

And that is all right by the Catholic coaches and players. They have no illusions. This is about the game, the essence of it.

Lonergan is not trained to play to the television cameras, because there is no television, with the exception of the championship game being aired tomorrow on Fox Sports South. The players are not pondering whether to leave school early to go to the NBA.

The journey is the thing, not the stuff around it. To hear the seniors tell it, the journey took four years and three disappointing losses, the first two after they reached the Sweet Sixteen and the one last season after they advanced to the Elite Eight.

As they waited to have their team photo snapped after practice, the Catholic coaches and players watched one of the Division I tournament games being shown on television. The Division I teams are trying to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis, the Cardinals are where they want to be, in the tiny town next to Roanoke.

They feel pretty good about it.

"I know I feel the madness," said Maloney.

That is March Madness, the Division III version, and no qualifying comment is necessary.

The madness is genuine.

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