|Makenzie Fancher leads the young and deep Captains squad.
Christopher Newport athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
Christopher Newport is a relative newcomer to the Capital Athletic Conference and the Mid-Atlantic region. The Captains spent many years at or near the top of the USA South, coming over before the 2013-14 season.
"It's a very, very different style of basketball," said CNU women's coach Bill Broderick.
"It's another level of professionalism, another level of competition. It's been really good for us; the competitive level and the national stage of the CAC has been significant," adds men's coach John Krikorian.
Now both teams have settled in and are nationally ranked with a combined 39-3 record on the season. They just finished up a rough stretch of conference games, five in eleven days, four on the road, including trips to Southern Virginia, Frostburg, Salisbury, and Wesley.
Each team has already clinched a conference tournament berth, but despite their similar looking records, the men's and women's teams at CNU are approaching this success from very different positions.
The veterans on Broderick's team are all sophomores, with a few freshmen mixed in.
"Because of [the interim coach the previous year] and because I was hired so late, we basically went two years with no recruiting," says Broderick. "That's what you're seeing right now, no seniors and no juniors. This sophomore class is really my first recruiting class."
What they lack in experience is more than made up for in talent and depth. It is not uncommon to see 13 or 14 Captains in the game contributing. For example, at Wesley on Saturday, Brooke Basinger was the eleventh player into the game, but contributed six quick points and much needed energy on defense at a crucial moment for CNU.
The women are still very unpolished, but it's clear there's a serious gem ready to emerge. It's tough to call a 19-2 squad a work in progress, but there is so much room to grow in court vision, aggressiveness, and being able to adjust on the fly. Broderick spends much of the game in practice mode, correcting his team and teaching them how to read and react to what's happening on the floor.
Sam Porter leads the Captains in scoring, but averages just a little over 10 points per game. In reality, anyone can score at just about any moment and that's how Broderick likes it.
"My goal would be to average 80 a game and not have a single person in double digits," he said.
It's a complex system, but one the players seem to get better at executing with each game.
Bringing order to the chaos is point guard Makenzie Fancher, a clear leader on and off the floor.
"I love playing with this team," she says. "Fun is an understatement. Even in practice we have a good
time. We have great team chemistry and that's why I think we've been so successful this year."
This creates real matchup problems for opposing defenses, who can never know from where the scoring will come.
Says Fancher, "It's hard for other teams to focus on one person because we have so many people on the team who can step up, not just with scoring, but with defense too."
While the women are still feeling out their place among the D-III elite, the CNU men are preparing to be nationally competitive this March. Already ranked No. 6 in the country, this squad is equally as deep as the women, but full of experienced leaders, ready and willing to incorporate a lot of talented underclassmen into the game.
"We feel like we have a real mature, experienced group," says Krikorian. "The goal is just to grow each and every day, to get better, and develop the best team chemistry we possibly can, to achieve excellence."
It's excellence they've shown so far this season, overcoming their lone loss to a tough Scranton squad to run roughshod over a typically deep cadre of CAC competitors, and clinching the top tournament seed with four games remaining.
Despite that experience, two sophomores lead the Captains in scoring. Marcus Carter starts and Aaron McFarland comes off the bench to give CNU a pretty much constant perimeter threat at all times.
"I've never really understood the importance of the whole starting thing," says Krikorian, "and this team has really embraced that – nobody cares who starts. We have a rotation between nine and 13 guys on a given night who will all play meaningful minutes and nobody really cares who's getting their name called at the beginning of the game. We are so deep, we've got so much talent – those guys getting minutes are just happy they're playing."
Tim Daly controls the middle of the floor, the 6-6 junior is long and plays bigger than his size, but also provides a versatile, active post presence who can also pass and make free throws. Daly, who was also instrumental in a 13-point comeback on Saturday at Wesley, hit two clutch free throws at the end of Wednesday's win at Salisbury to get the Captains into OT.
"It was a pretty special moment; my heart was beating out of my chest," said Daly. "It was an indescribable feeling, it was so loud in there – it's something you dream about as a kid."
Oh yeah, and he comes off the bench, too.
Krikorian explains: "In Aaron and Tim's case I really think they enjoy [coming off the bench]. They're going to play the same amount of minutes as if they were starting, but it gives them a couple minutes to see the ebb and flow of the game. Four minutes into the game some teams are getting tired and we're
bringing in the heavy artillery. We don't plan it that way, we just do it because it's working for us."
"I'd be lying if I said I expected this," women's coach Broderick admits. "We're a year or a year-and-a-half ahead of where I thought we'd be, especially in this conference."
On the women's side, the CAC has four really strong teams in Marymount, Mary Washington, and York, in addition to a tough Salisbury squad that dominated the conference a year ago.
"Every game is extremely tough," adds Fancher. "We have to go in preparing like it's a championship game every time."
It's a tough reputation for these young Captains to live up to, with Final Four and Elite Eight runs in the recent past.
Says Fancher, "Every day in practice we look up and see the banners of the teams who've gone before us. We just want to carry on that tradition; it's why we work so hard and why we have such big aspirations. We're a good team right now; we're working to be a great team."
Her coach agrees: "The goal is, by the time these guys are seniors, we're going to be competing nationally."
They have no further to look for inspiration and example than the other side of the gym.
Daly says of the men's team: "We'd love to make a deep run. We always have really high expectations here. We have the right pieces and we've got a strong work ethic. We have three seniors who provide lots of leadership and we all just want to make them proud, send them off on a high note. Right now our eyes are on our next opponent, finishing strong, and being the best we can be coming into the conference tournament."
It will take hard work and maybe a little luck, but it's not so far-fetched to think, in a few weeks, both of Christopher Newport's basketball teams could be dancing. Regardless, they've both set up a strong foundation for this season and the years to come.
Franklin and Marshall rounding into form
The F&M men started the season with high expectations. They've won their coach his 900th career victory and have wrangled what once looked like a three-team Centennial race into a three-game lead with four to play. The Diplomats just missed out on the NCAA tournament last season and look to rectify the situation with an automatic bid this year. Up to No. 16 in the national ranking, Franklin and Marshall has Ursinus and a surging Johns Hopkins on the road before finishing with home tilts against Gettysburg and Dickinson.
The Stevenson women started the season 4-6, struggling to find ways to put the ball in the hoop. Since early January, though, scoring is up and the team hasn't lost. They've ridden this winning wave to second place in the Commonwealth and the title of "team nobody wants to face." They have three games this week, though, culminating in a rematch with league-leading Albright on the road Saturday.
National champions reunite
Scranton won the men's basketball national title in 1976, the second ever D-III championship, by knocking off Wittenberg 60-57 in overtime. The Royals' Jack Maher was named Most Outstanding Player of that Final Four, in part for his dominance of the overtime period. Scranton will commemorate the 40th anniversary of this championship team with a celebration at halftime of the game against Goucher on Saturday, February 13.
In addition to the CNU men's win over Salisbury that went to extra time, the Scranton women had to survive 45 minutes of play against Moravian in the rematch of a game I previewed a few weeks ago. Moravian's Alesha Marcks hit a three-point shot to force OT, while Scranton's Noelle Alicea made four free throws down the stretch to seal a 70-65 victory.
Sara Tarbert, a junior at Stevenson, scored her 1,000th point in December. She played her freshman year at D-I UMBC and the NCAA didn't link the stats properly, so I missed it. She's scoring fast, though, so she might show up again for hitting 1,500 before the season's over. Steve Weidlich from Susquehanna and Corey Stanford from Catholic both hit 1,000 points this week as well.
We are always on the lookout for good Mid-Atlantic region stories. I'm especially interested in statistical milestones and behind the scenes successes – these aren't always as easy to find in headlines and box scores. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ryanalanscott on twitter.
Around the Mid-Atlantic was written by Ryan Scott during the 2015-16 season. He now writes Around the Nation.