All Eyes are on the Cats

Five men, four years, one coach, three broken wrists, four 20-plus win seasons, two America East Champions, and two NCAA births; are you ready for the climax? The Cats might have usurped Howard Dean and Ben and Jerry’s for the most recognizable icons hailing from Vermont, but they won’t self-destruct down the stretch and they won’t raise your cholesterol. They have played in two nationally televised games and are the team of focus for this year’s installment of ESPN2’s program “The Season.”

The 2004-05 UVM Men’s Basketball team is the best that UVM has ever known. They just might be the best team that the America East conference has known by currently having the chance to have the highest seed an America East team has ever had in the NCAA tournament. Their record is 21-6 overall and 16-2 in America East games. They ended their regular season with a loss at the University of Maine on Sunday, February 27th while playing without their stars Coppenrath and Sorrentine.

The team has chemistry; the x-factor that makes good teams great and great teams legendary. T.J. Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath, David Hehn, and Germain Mopa Njila have started together for the last three years, with the fifth senior on the team Alex Jensen holding it down as the perennial 6th man.

The maestro is the Cat’s coach Tom Brennan, whose personality seems like what Dick Vitale would be like on lots of Valume: good natured and funny, lacking any pretension, with a sense of humor that quickly comes up to a simmer without boiling over. Just listen to his radio show “Corm and the Coach” on weekday mornings and you’ll see what I mean.

Brennan said of his Cats, “Teams who have good chemistry only get stronger when faced with adversity while teams who don’t have good chemistry get weaker.” The Cats have obviously gotten stronger over the years. For students, staff, and faculty the progression over the past four years has been an amazing thing to watch.

On the court the Cats are lead by team captain Sorrentine and Coppenrath. Sorrentine is currently ranked third in conference scoring and second in assists. He is also ranked 7th in the nation for three point field goals, and last week in Albany set the America East record for career three point field goals with 326. Coppenrath is ranked second in the nation for points per games averaging 24.4. He has been named America East Player of the Year for the past two seasons and is currently leading the conference in scoring and rebounding. He is also a candidate for John Wooden Award and James Naismith Award for National Player of the Year.

Together Sorrentine and Coppenrath are the nation’s top scoring tandem with a combined 43.2 points per game this season. In the first episode of “The Season” the two team leaders and roommates showed off their crib, and showed off their near opposite yet complimentary personalities. When asked of the significant media attention the team has received over the course of the season Coppenrath said, “It’s great, but you can’t spend too much time worrying about it, I just play the game.” Sorrentine said of the attention, “It’s fun whenever you can get on the national stage, treasure it, its not going to last forever.”

The Cats understand that they are in the process of making UVM history and that they have changed the way people look at basketball at the University of Vermont. Sorrentine said of this, “We’re leaving a legacy of winners, we have changed the face of UVM basketball.”

In 2001 when the UVM’s current senior class were freshman, UVM athletics were at a low. Varsity sports were suffering from low attendance, and the former rallying point, Men’s Hockey, was still suffering from the hazing scandal of the late 1990’s.

Senior Fred Castiglia said “It’s great to see so many people getting so excited about the basketball team. My freshman year tickets were easy to come by, now I have to make it a point to pick them up on the day they’re released.” The Cats feel this support, Mopa Njila said, “The intensity of the fans is very exciting. They make it a lot more fun to play.”

On Wednesday, February 23rd Brennan commented to his team at the beginning of practice, “You know things are getting big when we show up to practice 25 minutes early and start ten minutes late because of the media.” Directly following that comment he took another break from coaching and talked to the media some more.

He told the Cynic with a laughing smile, “The attention has affected me terribly, but the kids have been wonderful about it. I’m very proud of them.” He looked at the ESPN cameras present at the practice, filming for the next episode of “The Season,” then pointed to Hehn saying, “He is loving it, he’s hoping that they’ll make a spin off just on him. He wants to be the next Joey.” This comment probably stemmed from the fact that Hehn was seen on the first episode of “The Season” trying on many of his different hats for the camera.

Hehn has been the ultimate role player over the last three years, to prove this he set UVM’s record for most consecutive games with 114 on February 9 playing against Stony Brook; his total is now 119. Mopa Njila is the versatile forward who has the size and strength of a power forward but moves the floor with the agility of a small forward. He is the big reason why the Cats are ranked 22nd in the nation for defense, allowing only 61.1 points per game.

The Cats are entering the conference tournament as the top seed in America East and will play the winner between 8 seed New Hampshire and 9 seed UMBC this Saturday at 2:30. Although they are coming off a loss, their spirits are high and believe that this will be the best season in UVM history and are trying to finish off the season with a win in the NCAA tournament.