Friday, January 14, 2011

In which I embrace the clichés I once decried and take this awesome Flying Dutchmen run one day at a time

Google it, DC!

When I was forcibly removed from the field of paying sports journalism three years ago next month, I figured one of the few bright spots was I’d no longer have to repress my disdain whenever I heard an athlete or coach/manager utter a cliché. One day at a time, one game at a time, don’t get too high or too low, we don’t want to look too far ahead or too far back…blah Blah BLAH SHUT UP ALREADY.

Freed of a byline and a paycheck, I could scream at the television every time Derek Jet—err, an overrated one-time star shortstop—made it clear how much he loathes working grunts with the passive-aggressive act of being unfailingly available to say absolutely nothing at all. I could snort whenever managers and coaches refused to play along with reporters who asked them to put a rivalry or a game into a historical context. Instead of listening to a digital recorder trying to find a quote that wasn’t a cliché, I could read stories and try to find a quote that wasn’t a cliché.

It was gloriously freeing (well, except for that whole thing where I defined myself by my job and fell into a crippling depression, thanks corporate scum!). I could look back all I wanted. Sure, I’m intelligent enough to know that winning 28 of 34 games against Towson dating back to 1995-96 doesn’t have an impact on the next game against the Tigers, but it’s a cool fact, and I could write about it all I wanted.

And I could overlook absolutely anybody I wanted. I could look ahead. I could take one Hofstra win, and imagine it would jumpstart a run to the NCAA Tournament. I could ponder what it would be like to celebrate a CAA championship in March. I could do whatever I wanted.

Yet now that the Flying Dutchmen, for the first time in three seasons, are actually giving us fans something to look ahead to, and facing opponents we can afford to overlook, I’m…I’m not doing it. Even today, with winless Northeastern and Towson neatly dispatched over the last six days, the Dutchmen all alone in first place in the CAA at a perfect 5-0 and preseason favorite Old Dominion coming into what better be a packed Hofstra Arena tomorrow, I find myself still—oh dear God—taking it one day at a time.

Which makes me a lot like Mo Cassara. “We’re still a one stop at a time, one day at a time team,” Cassara said during the Dutchmen’s ride home from Towson Wednesday night, “This is still a work in progress. This is still a group that’s learning.”

OK, but he’s got to be excited about facing Old Dominion Saturday, right? “I think the thing we’re most excited about is going home and being able to play in front of our fans on our home court,” Cassara said. “We’ll leave it at that and continue to try to get better.”

Don’t let the Bill Belichick impersonation fool you. Cassara is as excited as you and I, and knows how long we’ve all waited for this, because he’s waited just as long. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this year.

Oh, it was, originally, way back when Tom Pecora was the coach and Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams were reigning members of the all-rookie team and Cassara was an assistant at Boston College who may or may not have known where Hempstead was. But then Pecora, Kanacevic and Williams left, and the year in which everything was supposed to come together—Jenkins’ senior year—was shaping up as yet another missed opportunity, another one of those years that would have us jaded Hofstra fans wondering what might have been. We’re good at that.

No year sticks in our craw quite like 2006-07, which was a season of entitlement for fans and, perhaps, players alike. The Dutchmen were the overwhelming pick to win the CAA and even earned some Top 25 consideration in the pre-season, so when they opened the season 0-3 and then got destroyed by Syracuse in their biggest non-conference games before losing CAA games at Northeastern and Delaware, we just assumed they’d turn it on when it mattered most and win three games in Richmond. Yeah. Not so much.

We’ve gotten used to pining for our waning days in the America East, when Hofstra had a target on its back throughout back-to-back championship runs, while trying to convince ourselves that there was some magic to be found the last three seasons. OK, maybe not in 2007-08, when starts of 1-5 and 2-9 meant the year was over as soon as it started, but the 2008-09 team started off red-hot and the 2009-10 team ended red-hot. But there was never really a sense either squad had what it took to make a deep CAA Tournament run.

We also kick ourselves for not savoring 2005-06 enough. In our defense, that magical season happened one year earlier than anticipated—check out that non-conference schedule that cost Hofstra an at-large bid (snort). Nobody really knew what we were watching unfold until Hofstra battered George Mason at the Arena in late February. Other than the obvious Screw Job, the season was awesome, but it was a tidal wave—we didn’t realize we were in the midst of it until we were swept under tow.

If it ever happened again, we promised ourselves, we’d realize it in the moment and, to invoke another cliché, smell the roses this time and enjoy the experience of the college basketball world beginning to turn its gaze towards us.

And it’s happening, during a season in which we figured the scent would be something other than rosy. A year that began with the fanbase hoping for the best but steeling itself for another rough ride has instead turned into a sprint on the straightaway. Holy smokes, that never happens to us.

I imagine similar sentiments are being expressed by seniors Charles Jenkins, Greg Washington and Nathaniel Lester. Often times, when coaches utter clichés, it’s because they need to keep their team focused. But that’s not a problem with that trio running the locker room, not after all they’ve been through since the end of last season. There’s no need to remind the seniors—especially Jenkins, the best player and leader I’ve ever seen at Hofstra and someone who deserves this spot on center stage, however long it lasts—to enjoy the moment, no worry that they won’t pass that advice down to their younger, less weathered teammates.

“There was a time, five years ago when I was a redshirt freshman, I sat on the end of the bench, nobody knew who I was,” Jenkins said Saturday in Boston. “I’ll take advantage of it. If you want to take pictures of me and write stories, I’ll [do] anything.”

Cassara’s words are probably as much a reminder for the coaching staff as it is for the players. Not that coaches need to be instructed in the ways of the cliché, but this group, in particular, has earned the right to just enjoy the moment. Cassara, Steve DeMeo and Allen Griffin all had no idea what awaited them or if they’d even remain in the business after Tim Welsh was arrested last April. Wayne Morgan was already out of the business, toiling as a satellite television salesman in Iowa. There’s a reason these guys coach and work as if their jobs are on the line every single day.

This is the team that everyone else left behind, worth rooting for long before it became the team everyone else was chasing. “I think through all the challenges and difficulties that we had on so many different levels and the different curveballs that have been thrown at us—from injuries to travel to various other things—[they’ve developed] kind of an us against the world mentality,” Cassara said.

“And our group is really bonded together. The energy is great on the bench. Our bench is cheering and we’re getting different efforts from different guys. It’s a sign of a good team, a team that’s getting better everyday.”

Tomorrow could be the best day yet, but let’s enjoy today first—one more day in which we hit refresh on the CAA standings and smile at the sight of Hofstra alone atop the league. One more day of scouring the Internet for stories about Cassara and Jenkins. One more day of checking out bracketologists who are penciling in Hofstra as the CAA champ. One more day to examine those RPI rankings that have the Dutchmen in the top 100. One more day to realize just how joyous it is to watch the Dutchmen play such fundamentally sound basketball, and to realize it’s an indicator that while this run is a surprise, it isn’t a fluke.

It’s also one more day in which we can wonder if there’s a brick wall at the end of this straightaway. As we note often around here, the Dutchmen are awfully thin and CAA history is littered with teams that started fast and faded even faster.

But that’s precisely WHY we need to live by the clichés. We don’t want to miss out on the enjoyment just in case this is the basketball version of—WARNING! ANOTHER CLICHÉ AHEAD—the idea that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Follow me, and take it one day—and one cliché—at a time, won’t you?

Email Jerry at or follow Defiantly Dutch at

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