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“Believing this Day Would Come”
Vermont's Trip to the Dance

Bruce Bosley '79
photograph by Sally McCay

Athough their 42-hour, blizzard-battling journey across the country drew national attention, it was the University of Vermont’s 102-year quest for a men’s basketball championship that captivated the university and the state of Vermont. The NCAA tourney has been around for 64 years and has included 281 different schools but until this year, none was named Vermont. That all changed when with 5.6 seconds potentially left in the 2002-2003 season, a bleached-blond, left-handed Canadian guard exorcised the demons of the past by burying a 10-foot jumper to give the Catamounts the America East title and their first invitation to America’s premier collegiate sporting event, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

David Hehn’s shot gave Vermont its 56-55 lead in the 2003 America East Championship game at Boston University. Then the Catamount faithful sweated out perhaps the lengthiest 5.6 seconds in Green Mountain State history. When the Terriers last bid to win went off the mark and the final buzzer sounded, more than 700 Catamount fans stormed the Case Gym court to touch off a celebration that carried from Commonwealth Avenue north to the state of Vermont and thanks to ESPN, across the nation.

“In my first three years at UVM we won only 14 games yet the support from the school and the community never wavered,” commented head coach Tom Brennan who in the last three seasons has seen his team win 54 times. “Thank God I was given a 17-year window of opportunity to get to this point and it is so nice to reward the people who stuck by me. The trip to the NCAA tournament is for everyone connected with UVM, past or present, and most important, it is for the whole state of Vermont.”

The Catamounts’ stay in the NCAA’s was short, as they were dispatched in the first round of the West Regional in Salt Lake City by top-seeded Arizona. Short, but well documented because in the “Big Dance,” the nation loves an underdog, and a sportswriter looking for a story loves that underdog even a little more. Sixteenth seeds, first timers, quaint New Englanders, storm-crossed wayfarers led by a big-hearted, quipster of a coach — what journalist could resist the many angles of the University of Vermont basketball story? Well, very few did. Sports Illustrated to the Boston Globe to the Washington Post, the Catamounts were America’s Cinderella story for the opening round of the tourney.

The 2002-2003 campaign was the most anticipated season in history at UVM because the Catamounts raised the bar of success last year. Vermont in 2001-2002 won a school-record 21 games, their first-ever America East regular season title, and regularly sold out Patrick Gym. This year, UVM returned four starters and three talented juniors who missed last season, Matt Sheftic, Scotty Jones and Corey Sullivan, were back. T.J. Sorrentine, the America East player of the year and an honorable mention All-American in 2002, was primed and ready for his junior year.

But the anticipation soured in the first public intrasquad scrimmage on November 1 when Sorrentine, driving for a layup, crashed to the floor with a teammate on top of him. Bracing for the fall, he ended up with broken bones in his wrists. He would miss the rest of the season.

With Sorrentine gone, all eyes were on Taylor Coppenrath, last year’s America East Rookie of the Year. Battling through an early season bout of pneumonia, he would take the pressure off the Catamounts as the team developed a new identity. By season’s end, Coppenrath would put together a year that would earn him a place as Sorrentine’s successor in winning the Kevin Roberson America East Player of the Year Award.

Ironically, it was the three games Coppenrath missed due to illness and a six-game losing streak that helped the Catamounts develop their championship resolve. After fighting hard with just nine players in a loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Vermont returned north breathing a sigh of relief. If they could hold off the 23rd ranked Tar Heels without their go-to guys, albeit just for a half, they felt they could fare well in America East. The UNC defeat ended the losing streak and with Coppenrath back, a five-game run of wins began. Hehn moved into the starting point guard slot after an injury slowed senior Andre Anderson, while Sheftic, Grant Anderson, Germain Njila and teammates came together as a unit.

When Hehn put up that crucial jumper at BU, the Cats were a team that boasted 20 hard-fought wins, a second place finish in the conference over the regular season, and a rare trip to the America East Championship game. When the shot went down and the final seconds ticked away, they were a team with a special place in school history.

“The NCAA’s are what you dream about from the time you pick up a basketball. We all dreamed that we'd get there someday,” said Sheftic, who was named the America East tournament’s most outstanding player.

For Brennan, the celebration was unusually private. He has often commented on never cutting down the nets in his 30-plus years in college basketball, but when it was his turn he let the players have the honor while he reflected alone in the locker room. Later in the post game press conference, Brennan bounced back with 30 minutes of ‘T.B. Unplugged.’ His emotions took over as he quoted The Blues Brothers and Don Henley. He spoke of the intensity of the title game, the resiliency of his Catamounts, David Hehn’s hair, Taylor Coppenrath’s tiny hometown of West Barnet, Vermont, the quality of life in Burlington and the faith that former Athletic Director Denis Lambert had in him. But foremost, Brennan spoke of his and the Catamounts’ journey.

“This is so emotional for me. There were times when I thought to myself, ‘What in the hell are you doing this for? Why are you here?’ But I was raised to always be positive and to keep believing that this day would come.”

For more photos, see