With senior leadership and hearts that wouldn't give up,
Rob Colbert's team reached the heights of the NCAA
"How many times in your life can you say that you did something no one has ever done before? These players can say they've achieved a feat that nobody else at Keene State has accomplished. I'm so proud of them."
Visibly moved as he spoke, Coach Rob Colbert stood at the edge of the Chandler Gym court at Williams College as the men's basketball team, who had just run out of gas in their exhilarating ride to the Elite Eight of the 2003-04 NCAA Division III Sectional Tournament, headed for the locker room surrounded by devoted fans.
While past Owl teams celebrated NESCAC Championships in the 1960s and NAIA National Tournament appearances in the 1970s, the 2003-04 men's basketball team will always have the distinction of being the first Keene State team to cross the hallowed threshold of the NCAA Tournament.
As Bob Lund '70 – KSC alum, radio play-by-play man, and longtime Owl fan – noted in The Keene Sentinel, "There might have been more talented Keene State teams, but no other KSC team had the chemistry that this group had."
"We've always had good chemistry," said Colbert, who's in his fifth year as the Owls' head coach, "because we've had good kids. But this was a special year. No one cared who got credit, and that's what elevated our ability to win games."
You also need talent, and this year's team had a ton of it. Up front was senior forward Chris Timson, a quiet leader with an uncanny ability to drive to the basket or pull up for a dagger three-pointer. Alongside were sophomore Sean Sullivan, a smooth operator who generated points inside or away from the basket, and Matt Wheeler, a high-flying senior forward who came off the bench and brought the house down with slam dunks. Sophomore Ben Maynard was the Owl strong man in the middle. Senior co-captains Alphonse Michalski and Bennett Pawlusiak formed the Owl back court. The heart and soul of the team, Michalski was a vocal leader, delivering his share of big points and assists from point guard. Meanwhile Pawlusiak's calling card was his in-your-shirt defense that shut down opponents' top players.
Add the contributions of supersub Harley Davis, three-point specialist Joe Shaw, and a reliable bench consisting of senior Brandon Johanson, junior Nate Bondini, sophomores Adam Gervais and Matt Craig, and a group of promising freshmen, and you can see why KSC racked up a record 13 regular-season Little East Conference wins (25-6, 13-1 LEC) and captured its first outright LEC Conference Championship.
Bridesmaids in three LEC championship games in the past six years, the Owls were spurred on by a sense of urgency. "The seniors were instrumental in determining where we were going to go this year," Colbert said. "They had experienced some success, but also had several close-but-no-cigar situations. They just refused to be denied in their final attempt."
Keene State played like a team on a mission throughout the 2003-04 season. While the promising four-and-a-half-month journey that took them from Gorham, Maine, to Danbury, Conn., occasionally took a sudden detour with an occasional loss, there was always an unanticipated special moment or play that got them back on course.
Who will forget Timson's 1,000th career point against UMass-Boston or his last second shot that snatched victory from defeat against Eastern Connecticut? Or the historic New Hampshire Hoops Classic at the Verizon Center, when the Owls won their first of three games against rival Plymouth State University? Or Wheeler's 30-point, 17-rebound performance against Southern Maine or Michalski's 31-point night against Western Conn., which catapulted KSC into the LEC Tournament Championship?
While the Owls had enough highlights to fill both baskets at Spaulding Gym, Colbert surprisingly singled out a loss to PSU as the turning point of the season. "The butt-kicking we took here against Plymouth was a grounding experience and was something we absolutely needed," said Colbert. "I think we had a false sense of how good we were."
Forced to face the fears of letting themselves and their fans down after that 98-67 loss, the Owls regrouped in a mere 48 hours and soundly beat a Western Conn. team that was picked to win the league. "It was a dominating team effort that I think set us on the road," Colbert said.
Hosting the LEC Tournament before a packed Spaulding Gym, the Owls rode the momentum with early-round wins over UMass-Boston (82-58) and Western Conn. (94-66). That set up another KSC/PSU showdown with the LEC Championship at stake. Posting a resounding 79-67 come-from-behind win over the Panthers, Keene State finally had its LEC title and first NCAA berth.
By the time they received a first-round bye and hosted a second-round NCAA game against Babson College, the Owls were the talk of the town. The precious few available tickets for KSC's first NCAA game were sold in less than an hour.
Colbert used words like "remarkable" and "inspiring" to describe the outpouring of support his team received from the campus and community. "I thought our team and the community really came alive this winter," Colbert said.
Among the many well-wishers was a large group of alumni. "I heard from an unbelievable number of alumni from all different years," Colbert added. "It wasn't just the last five years and the guys I coached. It's so nice, because I know this program and this college wanted something to be proud of."
From banners to sweaters and T-shirts and body and face paint, Spaulding Gym was a sea of red that night. And the Owls didn't disappoint the sold-out partisan crowd, rolling to a 79-55 victory.
For all their accomplishments, there were many who still doubted the Owls could fly with the region's elite. Silencing the cynics, Keene State, along with a large caravan of supporters, traveled to Williams College, where they stunned the University of Rochester, who had entered the tournament ranked third in the national poll, with an 82-79 win. Although the Owls' season came to an end the following night against Williams, the defending national champs, there was no reason for heads to hang in the Keene State locker room.
"We got beat by a better team tonight, but that will pale in comparison to what this group of kids accomplished this year," said Colbert.
"It's too bad we had to lose and the season had to come to an end," added Timson, who was selected to All-Region, All-ECAC, and All-LEC teams. "But we really couldn't do any more than we did this year."
Weeks later, sitting in his office while some of his players watched tapes of their upset win over Rochester, Colbert reflected on the positive long-term impact the past season would have on KSC basketball. "Our program is now viewed differently, both nationally and regionally," said Colbert, who led the Owls to an 18th ranking in the final D3Hoops National Poll. "Although we won't return the same team, we will return the same name.
"We don't want to be a flash in the pan," he added. "We want this to be a year-in, year-out commitment to excellence."
To maintain the team's high level of play, Colbert and his staff know they must recruit players who not only fit their style, but also have the same lofty expectations.
"These seniors played with four years of reckless abandon. They didn't care if they were scrimmaging or playing the top team in the country. They approached each game the same way," Colbert said. "I think if our incoming players can learn that, this is a tradition that can continue."
Stuart Kaufman is sports information coordinator of Keene State College.