- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

YORK, Pa. A yellow haze greets the Catholic Cardinals as they enter the third-floor gymnasium at York College. Pipe smoke wafts in from a nearby office, giving the tiny basketball arena a musty smell. Half the hanging lights are burned out. That may be a good thing; it helps hide the industrial-strength tile playing floor.
"I have never seen a floor quite like that. It's, like, this hard," says forward Will Morley, knocking on a cement wall.
Floors like that are just one of the things that separate the Division III Cardinals from the monied college basketball programs living large at the Division I level.
Those teams the Maryland Terrapins, Duke Blue Devils and Kentucky Wildcats of college basketball travel on charter flights. They stay at luxury hotels and eat specially prepared meals at extensive training tables. Their coaches receive million-dollar contracts, and their players aspire to the million-dollar deals of the NBA. They compete in immaculate, sold-out arenas in games broadcast on national television.
The Cardinals inhabit a world of hoops have-nots. Their highlights are not on ESPN, and their players harbor no dreams of fat NBA contracts. The "training table" consists of fast food picked up by the coaches. It is a low-budget experience of packed bus rides, shoddy facilities and professors who don't understand why classes are missed.
The Cardinals rank fourth in the nation and are only two seasons removed from a national championship, but they get little media recognition and are largely anonymous on their own campus. They play before sparse crowds in antiquated facilities like the gym in York, which one player called a "nicely decorated grade school gym."
"Being in college and seeing a place like this, it just reminds me of high school," says Morley, the nephew of former Terrapins player Dutch Morley. "Obviously, the facilities in D-III sometimes aren't that good."
Neither are the perks. Major college teams like Maryland leave for games a day early even for ones in towns as close as Charlottesville spend a night in a hotel and rest in the hours leading up to game time. Catholic players attend class until early afternoon on game days, hustling afterward to catch the team bus and hoping not to get caught in rush-hour traffic.
Maryland assistant coach Jimmy Patsos has experienced both extremes. Patsos played at Catholic, where he was a teammate of Cardinals coach Mike Lonergan, before graduating in 1989.
"We used to drive seven hours in a van with no heat to upstate New York on game days," Patsos says. "Our [Terrapins] players can't relate to that. Our guys worry about whether they should eat pasta or protein in the hotel before a game. It's a different world. We were happy to stop for Kentucky Fried Chicken at 5 o'clock for a 7 o'clock game.
"Our guys are pretty good. But if I tell them stories like that, they look at me like I told them I walked 10 miles uphill in the snow to get to school."
At Catholic, the men's and women's teams travel together to save money. Lonergan and his wife, Maggie, who coaches the women's team, bring their two young children in car seats on the bus. Trips aren't over until they return to the Northeast Washington campus in the middle of the night.
Point guard Craig Avallone also knows the luxuries of top Division I programs. He was a high school teammate of Virginia Cavaliers guard Todd Billet at New Jersey's Christian Brothers Academy, and the friends speak often. Avallone hears about the Cavaliers' flights and hotels and the tutors players get on the road.
But to Avallone, the most important thing is playing basketball so much so that he put off getting his wisdom teeth pulled so he could play against York because another starter was out with a sprained ankle. Avallone is just as dedicated and works just as hard as Billet; he just doesn't get any of the luxuries or the recognition. It's all part of the anonymity of Division III.
"You wake up, sleep, practice, do your homework and do it all over again," the senior says. "It's pretty much all I expected a lot of long nights and a lot of fun."
Getting started
The morning begins with Mike and Maggie Lonergan picking up sandwiches they get a 20 percent discount because they are regulars that they will personally serve to everyone on the bus as the pregame meal.
Mike is rushing out of his office after a hectic morning that included ordering satellite television for his new home so he can watch NBA games late at night. Next to his desk, the team manager is sending an e-mail to a professor to excuse a player from class that afternoon.
"I hope he turned his paper in," Mike says.
Academics often get in the way of basketball. Three days a week, the men's team practices at 8:30 p.m. and doesn't finish until around 11 to accommodate class schedules. Even then, players are late because of academics. In the fall semester, one women's starter missed every Thursday practice. The only excused absences are for games.
"Teachers usually aren't that understanding," says Morley, a 6-foot-5 power forward. "They don't really care if we're basketball players. They don't cut us any slack. Some teachers get frustrated, but there is nothing we can do."
The bus leaves 20 minutes after its scheduled 2:15 p.m. departure, and the co-ed crew heads toward New York Avenue. This is the first season Catholic is traveling by bus. In the past, each team got a van, everyone piled in and the coach drove. In the interest of safety and not having tired coaches driving late at night the school splurged to cover one charter and a driver.
"Sometimes it's like grade school when boys stay in one corner and girls stay in that corner," senior forward Carol Schnepp says. "But I have known a lot of the guys for a while, and everyone gets along. It's fun."
The rare luxury comes at a price: The men face several idle hours while the women play, and the women are stranded until the later men's game is over.
"The extra time we have sitting around can get old quick," Avallone says. "We get along well with them. It just makes the days a little longer."
Not long into the journey, several students fall asleep. One man listens to music on his headphones. A woman talks on her cell phone. Others try to study.
"What is Jimmy Carter's middle name?" freshman Tim Burke asks a passer-by while peering over a book.
Maggie Lonergan hands out sandwiches shortly after the bus departs. Mike Lonergan and assistant Jim Black discuss a potential recruit.
"The kid is looking for financial aid, but his dad does well enough that it's not going to work out at our place," Mike says. Division III programs don't have athletic scholarships, and Catholic must be creative to find partial grants and loans for athletes.
Videotapes of the opponents are put on the monitors. This is the first time most players have seen them. Other than heavy traffic on Baltimore's beltway, the ride goes smoothly and the bus arrives on schedule.
Play and wait
Guard Will Juwando is sitting at the scorer's table reading a textbook as the women warm up. Maggie Lonergan is discussing strategy several feet away on the Cardinals' bench. Her children, 3-year old Jack and 2-year-old Margaret, are with her parents and Mike in the stands across from the bench.
Maggie, who played at Division I Mount St. Mary's, took over a struggling program last season and made it competitive. The Cardinals think a win against a good York team would be a landmark victory. Catholic starts strong and leads by five at halftime. Before addressing the team at intermission, Maggie huddles with assistant Thom Manco and another part-time helper.
"I have this extra assistant who adds his two cents," she says. "That's my husband. … I really do appreciate what he says."
The game is tied at 62-62 with one minute remaining.
"I need this win to keep a happy household," says Mike, watching from the doorway.
As often happens on the road, several calls go against the Cardinals to compound several mistakes. York wins 68-62.
After talking to her players, Maggie comes upstairs and switches roles from coach to mother. Little Margaret jumps into her arms, while Jack is at her side.
"If it weren't for my two children, I don't know how I would have lasted this long in coaching," Maggie says. "This loss is very hard for me. But I'm forced to change my mentality. The loss eats at you, but the children and my team help me out."
D-III intensity
Mike has a straightforward talk with his players in the cramped locker room under the gym. He mentions they are a target because of their No.4 ranking and that he expects the fans to be rowdy. The crowd of 425 is considered good for a facility that generously lists its capacity at 1,200.
York comes in with a 10-6 record, and an upset would make its season. Mike stresses a win would guarantee the Cardinals a higher seed in the upcoming Capital Athletic Conference tournament. "Let's win this so we don't have to come back here," he says.
The Cardinals come out for layup drills in red and white candy-striped warmups that look too nice for the rickety gym. They are met by a goofy-looking student wearing a green, frizzy-haired wig, a cape, shorts and stirrup socks like those worn by old-time baseball players. He stands on the sideline whacking a spoon on a cooking pan and chanting, "Overrated."
A shirtless buddy and a student wearing a frilly blue wig and a blue Tar Heels jersey with Michael Jordan's number on it join him. The 50 students in one corner are not as numerous as the famed Cameron Crazies at Duke, but they are just as spirited.
A cell phone goes off as the York cheerleaders sing the national anthem. After the final note, a child starts crying. Mike looks cross-court and sees his son in tears. He chuckles before giving his team its last-minute instructions.
The Cardinals fall behind by nine, and the "overrated" chant picks up. The students sitting across from the Catholic bench mostly are well-behaved, but one older fan sitting alone in the first row behind the bench becomes Mike's personal heckler.
"Stop begging," he yells after Mike reacts to a referee's call. "You're on the road."
The bald, pudgy man keeps calling Mike "Joe Pesci," and he gets more abrasive as the game wears on.
Catholic surges back to take a 22-21 lead on Avallone's leaner in the lane. York answers with eight straight points, and Mike calls a timeout. He walks in front of the scorer's table, and the heckler stands up and steps in that direction. The two are only five feet apart, separated by a narrow table.
A heated argument erupts between Mike and the heckler. A referee runs over and tells the coach, "You should know better than that." Mike asks to have the fan removed, but there are no security guards at the game. Everyone stands around for an awkward moment. The situation is defused when York coach Jeff Gamber tells the man, "Tony, you have to leave that section." Tony walks away sheepishly and is not heard from again.
The bizarre incident inspires the Cardinals, who take a 32-31 lead. It doesn't hold. York goes ahead by four before freshman Pat Satalin hits a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cut the margin to one.
"That [type of play] is the stuff that can get you beat in a place like this," says Mike, who is surprisingly restrained in the locker room. "We had 13 turnovers, defensive breakdowns, and we settled for poor jumpers."
Mike immediately regrets his low-key approach as the sloppy play continues and York builds a 62-54 lead midway through the half, sending the students into a frenzy.
That's when the Cardinals show why they are so highly regarded. They go on a 20-2 run, including 8-for-8 from the line, to take a 74-64 lead on two free throws by Adam Dickman. York cuts the lead to two with 20 seconds left, but Avallone hits a pair of free throws despite the rowdy crowd.
"I don't mind the yelling," Avallone says after the Cardinals' 82-77 win. "It gets you fired up to play. It's better than people not being in the gym."
In the final seconds, the students' chant changes to "You're still ugly" and then "Let's get wasted."
Back upstairs, the tight game prevented the Cardinals women players from getting schoolwork done.
"I read about half a page," says Schnepp, holding a criminology book. "This game was just too intense not to watch. If it were a blowout, which I was hoping it would be, I would have continued reading. On the way home, there is nothing really to do. It should be quiet, and I should be able to get some work done."
The return
Young Jack Lonergan, named after his dad's former coach at Catholic, Jack Bruen, is excited as the bus pulls out shortly before 11 p.m. because somebody on "mommy's team" gave him a green lollypop.
The team stops at McDonald's before getting on the interstate. There is chatter on the bus as it rolls down I-83 and a debate between the men and women about which movie to show. The women win, and a movie about cheerleaders, "Bring It On," plays. Some players rest. Others attempt to study.
The ride home is much faster with no traffic, and the bus arrives in front of the DuFour Center at 1:05 a.m. Schnepp knows it will be a short night before her morning class.
"I won't dress up and look pretty," she says. "That's my way of sleeping in. It's all worth it. I really enjoy it. I have learned how to be better with my time and balance doing my work and basketball. I really feel this has been a big part of my education."
Isn't that what college sports were meant to be?

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