- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

The Catholic University basketball players practice with the doors wide open and with their eyes wide shut, depending on their class schedules.

The latter sometimes leads to a 9:30 p.m. practice time, no matter the cause, not even the beginning of the NCAA Division III 48-team tournament this week.

The foot traffic in the gymnasium is heavy, the mood relaxed, the absence of athletic scholarships a telling distinction from the Division I programs readying to grab a piece of March. The student in student-athlete is emphasized, partly because it costs about $32,000 a year to be a student at Catholic.

Matt Hilleary, the Player of the Year in the Capital Athletic Conference, majors in civil engineering and minors in double-doubles. He has made no threat to pick up a weight in his three seasons with the Cardinals, which explains his presence in Brookland instead of at Division I Colgate.

Just the same, the Cardinals put their short pants on one leg at a time, on the say so of coach Mike Lonergan, who has built a national powerhouse in relative solitude.

The Cardinals have a 25-2 record, a national championship from last season and a second-round date with Hampden-Sydney (Va.) tonight after earning a bye in the first round.

Lonergan is feeling anxious out of habit. The injury report does not help either. It involves the team's three starting perimeter players, two juniors and a blue freshman.

Craig Avallone has a bad knee, Kevin Wise a bad wrist and Bobby Henning a bad head.

Henning's condition stems from a case of homesickness. In his case, home is Bricktown, N.J. Coincidentally, the brick in Bricktown goes with Henning's .222 shooting percentage from the 3-point line. Otherwise, the itty-bitty point guard was the CAC co-Rookie of the Year.

The three have to shoot straight the rest of the way, Wise in particular. He was 2-for-11 from the 3-point line in the CAC championship game. That is the aberrant aside in his .474 shooting percentage from there.

"God, we need him," Lonergan says.

They bring God into it at Catholic, along with the Rev. Robert Schlageter, a strong-armed member of the clergy with an interest, when necessary, in crowd control. It was necessary in the CAC final with Marymount.

"I saw Father Bob working out again on Monday," Lonergan says.

At least the man in the robe is ready. Lonergan is unable to make the same assumption with his players.

"I wish I knew what they were thinking," he says. "It's hard to get this far. I don't know if they know that."

If not, the oversight can be excused. A victory tomorrow night would put the Cardinals in the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth season in a row. That would be a claim no other Division III basketball program could make. Catholic is one of 382 programs, the best one until shown otherwise.

Longergan is almost certain there is a dark conspiracy afoot. It won't be official until tomorrow, and only then if the Cardinals survive their initial test and are dispatched to Elizabethtown, Pa.

Lonergan is required to be a good sport around the selection committee, although, like God, the committee sometimes works in mysterious ways. It worked late last Sunday night, well past newspaper deadlines and East Coast bedtimes. The timing was curious, if an announcement functions best with an audience.

Lonergan expects a national championship to curry favor in deciding appropriate postseason venues, especially if the national champion has lost only two games the following season.

"What are we supposed to do?" he says.

Cross your fingers and hope all members of the selection committee have caught up on their sleep this week. Clarity is more apt to come to a well-rested brain.

An ESPN crew made it out to the gymnasium one night this week, perhaps because the tiny opening in Michael Jordan's right knee allowed an opening in the cable entity's schedule.

The ESPN camera was treated more courteously than the one held by Darcy Flynn, the local lawyer/filmmaker who has been known to tape the weakest bladders in the neighborhood late at night.

The novelty is evident in either case, each possibly passing as art.

Now let's pass the ball.

The wait is almost over at Catholic as the quest begins anew.


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