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Spring 2002


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ONE COURT TWO CHAMPS

Passively watching a basketball game isn’t in Libby Smith’s nature. The senior guard is usually in the thick of things on the court for the UVM women’s basketball team. So, when she and her teammates took the front row of bleachers for a UVM men’s game this season, Smith wasn’t going to take being a fan sitting down.

Patrick Gym too quiet for her liking, Smith stood and called out a U-V-M cheer. She got a playful jab from teammate Morgan Hall for her effort, and UVM fans got a glimpse of the supportive spirit between the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

No matter which squad was at home this winter, Catamount fans got their money’s worth. The UVM teams both took regular season America East championships, notched a combined record of 42 wins and 16 losses (20-3 at home), the men’s 12-game winning streak is the longest in UVM history, and the women strung together thirteen straight of their own late in the season.

Almost as notable as the winning ways is the mutual respect of these two programs, exemplified by Libby Smith and friends. The men, by the way, returned the favor at a tough road game in Albany. Sitting behind the women’s bench, their raucous support was something women’s coach Keith Cieplicki will always remember. And men’s coach Tom Brennan says he was truly shocked to see his guys set their cool aside for the moment and make some serious noise.

Like so much of what happens with a basketball team, the UVM programs’ harmony starts with the tone set by the head coaches. The two go so far back that Brennan will tell you Church Street was “a hole in the ground” when he first visited Burlington to recruit a talented Rice High School senior named Keith Cieplicki. Brennan, then an assistant coach at William & Mary, made his case well and Cieplicki would make his name at the college — school hall of fame, jersey retired, picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA draft.

The duo would work together again, Brennan as head coach and Cieplicki as assistant, at both Yale and UVM. Then, different teams, same gym, when Cieplicki signed on as an assistant with the UVM women’s program in 1991. He’s in his fifth season as a UVM head coach; Brennan’s in his sixteenth.

With regular season conference championships clinched and America East tournaments looming ahead, Cieplicki and Brennan sit down in the latter’s office to reflect on the memorable year. Brennan’s phone rings with well-wishers approximately every three minutes.

“This team came to my emotional rescue,” says Brennan. “I was really on the bubble in terms of whether I wanted to keep doing this. But they worked so hard and gave so much effort, I thought, ‘Man, this is a wonderful group to be around.’ And then to have it end with a regular season championship is just unbelievable.”

Cieplicki speaks in similarly glowing terms about his team. “Their unselfishness and their desire to see each other succeed stands out. They’ve taken the sense of ownership that you always hope they will. Once that kicks in, then my job is pretty much done really. That doesn’t happen too often.”

Both coaches decline to speculate what might be, an NCAA tournament bid for instance. (Both teams would suffer close losses in the semi-finals of their conference tournaments. The women’s team, though, competed in the WNIT post-season tournament, losing a first-round game to Holy Cross.)

But before the onset of March Madness, the talk is all about the season that was, the wins carved out through the winter. The phone rings again and Brennan takes the call, laughing and talking in that booming voice, able to carry across basketball courts or airwaves with equal punch. For a few moments the rooms fills with two conversations on one topic.

Cieplicki tells a visitor that no matter what lies ahead, this has been a special year: “People forget that only one team wins the regular season championship. If we fall off the face of the Earth tomorrow, we’re still the champs.”

Simultaneously, Brennan says to his friend at the other end of the line, “What can I tell you? It’s wonderful, it just feels so good, it’s perfect, man. Perfect.”

For the latest on Catamount sports: www.uvmathletics.com.

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