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photo by Sally McCay

Another Title, Another Dance
by Jon Reidel

The last thing three broken wrists in three years should produce is three America East Championships. Yet somehow, that’s what the men’s basketball team managed to endure and accomplish on March 13 when they defeated Maine, 72-53, for a second-straight America East title, following the regular season championship in 2002.

The prize, of course, was another trip to the NCAA Tournament, where the Cats drew a first round game against powerhouse UConn. The second-seeded Huskies came into the game favored by many to win the national championship; oddsmakers placed Vermont as a 20-point underdog in the first round alone. But UVM came out strong — running out to a 7-0 lead, keeping pace with UConn at 24-24 with 8 minutes left in the first half, and trailing by just ten at halftime. Though Connecticut began to wear UVM down in the second half, the Cats, lifted by T.J. Sorrentine’s 19-point performance, drew to within ten with 11:22 left. Ultimately, the Huskies pulled away to a 70-53 victory, bringing to a close one of the most exciting weeks in the history of UVM athletics.

The American East Championship game in Burlington was the most anticipated in school and state history. In the quest for tickets, hundreds of fans camped out overnight in the Patrick Gymnasium lobby, dubbed “Brennanville” in honor of the Catamount’s exuberant head coach, Tom Brennan, who broadcast his morning radio show live on-site. Fans who couldn’t come up with a ticket found consolation in the warm glow of ESPN; the sports network’s broadcast was the first nationally televised basketball game in Vermont history.

When game day finally arrived, fans were greeted by a carnival-like atmosphere outside Patrick complete with a rock band, food vendors, and UVM’s new mascot, Rally, saddled-up on the giant black rooster that once topped King Street’s Chickenbone Café. The days of predominantly empty bleachers seemed long gone as people held up signs in hopes of scoring tickets, now being scalped for perhaps the first time. University Police issued a notice the day before the game warning of counterfeits in circulation.

Inside the gym, there was a taste of Vermont-style celebrity. Phish, suited up in UVM basketball jerseys, harmonized a cappella on the national anthem. That guy in the wire-rimmed glasses was, indeed, former governor and presidential hopeful Howard Dean. And the ESPN announcers at courtside sampled cups of a special Ben and Jerry’s concoction called “Slam Chunk.”

The likelihood of this day seemed all but non-existent one month earlier when 2004 America East Player of the Year Taylor Coppenrath, fourth in the nation in scoring at the time, was told that his season was over due to a broken scaphoid bone in his wrist. UVM’s fourth all-time leading scorer broke the news to his roommate and star point guard T.J. Sorrentine by waking him from an early morning slumber with the words, “I’m out.”

Sorrentine, the 2002 America East Player of the Year, was all too familiar with the term scaphoid; he’d broken the same bone in each of his wrists the season before, as well as in high school. In his absence, Coppenrath and his teammates picked up the slack and took the Catamounts to the 2003 NCAA tournament for the first time in 102 years. Intent on returning the favor, Sorrentine elevated his game for the first two rounds of this year’s America East tourney and propelled the Catamounts to wins over New Hampshire and Hartford.

The team held strong without Coppenrath, but news that he might be able to return for the conference championship game turned Vermont’s basketball fever up a notch. After the removal of his cast a few days before the final, Coppenrath, who had been evaluated by the Boston Celtics team physician a week earlier, was given the thumbs up to practice by team doctors. The decision to play, however, wasn’t made until the morning of the game.

The now-famous 43-point performance he turned in set an America East Tournament record and led the Catamounts to a school record 22nd win. “I never know how good a game I’m going to have until the end...I thought I’d play limited minutes,” Coppenrath said after the game. Brennan chipped in, “We need to communicate better, son. I knew Tuesday he was going to play. I don't know when he knew he was going to play. He’s so stoic. There is nobody in this state that is more loved, maybe John LeClair.”

The superlatives were flying post-game, and even Maine’s coach John Giannini got in on it, saying he expects “to take his kids to see this as a Disney movie someday.” Coppenrath’s second America East Player of the Year honor puts him in elite company, as he is only the third athlete in conference history to win the award in back-to-back seasons. He joins Drexel’s Malik Rose, the late Reggie Lewis of Northeastern, amd Hofstra’s Speedy Claxton.

And Coppenrath will be back, along with many other familiar names — Sorrentine, Hehn, Njila, Klimes, Jensen, Hanson — when the Catamounts begin their quest for another championship next season. Hopes are sure to be high and tickets may be scarce. Better bring a sleeping bag.

Sports Shorts
As VQ went to press, UVM’s Athletics Department announced a strategic plan and realignment that will result in reinstatement of men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and the elimination of men’s and women’s tennis, men’s golf, and men’s swimming. Look for more details at uvmathletics.com or the summer issue of Vermont Quarterly.

Hockey alumnus Martin St. Louis ’97 of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning is in the midst of a career season. His outstanding play as one of the league’s leading scorers earned St. Louis a place on the NHL All-Star team and national media attention including a March feature in Sports Illustrated.

Women’s basketball posted a 14-13 record. Highlights of the year included putting together a five-game win streak at the end of the regular season and pulling a major upset by breaking rival Maine’s 31-game home winning streak with a February victory in Orono.

It had to end sometime. The ski team finished second in the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association Championships, ending 28 straight years of winning the event, the longest conference championship streak in college sports. UVM battled an outstanding Middlebury squad all season long. The Catamounts caught up to the Panthers at the NCAA Championships in California, where UVM’s fifth place finish made them the top team from the East. Strong performances at the NCAAs earned All-America status for five Vermont student-athletes: Lowell Bailey and Ethan Foster in both men’s Nordic races; women’s alpine standouts Hilary McCloy and Jamie Kingsbury in both the slalom and GS; and senior Matt Knittle in the slalom. UVM will host the 2005 NCAA Ski Championship at Stowe.

The men’s hockey team endured a rough start to put together an impressive five-game win streak late in the year. Goalie Travis Russell’s play earned him Inside College Hockey’s National Player of the Week award during the season. Coach Sneddon’s squad ended the year at 9-22-4. Next season will be the Hockey Cats’ final ECAC campaign. Both the men’s and women’s teams will join Hockey East, the nation’s premier college hockey conference, starting with the 2005-2006 season. Men’s Hockey East, founded in 1984, has earned 18 of 44 spots in the last 11 NCAA Frozen Fours and produced four national champions: Maine in 1993 and 1999, Boston University in 1995, and Boston College in 2001. Women’s Hockey East is a newer conference, founded in 2001.

Kerry Dziczkaniec, an assistant coach at the University of Maryland for the last five years, has been selected as the new head coach for UVM women’s soccer. She brings 11 years coaching experience in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with assistant roles at Florida State and the University of Virginia preceding her Maryland years.

Jesse Cormier ’95, one of the top players in the history of the UVM soccer program, will return to Burlington to lead the men’s team as head coach. Cormier has been on the staff at Oregon State University for the past three years, most recently as associate head coach. He helped coach the Beavers to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2002. Prior to joining OSU, Cormier coached at Bradley University and West Virginia University.

Catamount fans found a place in their hearts for a new cat this season with the debut of Rally (pictured above), the latest incarnation of a decades-old tradition. Mascot Rally bears a closer resemblance to UVM Athletics’ V-Cat logo, is nimbler, and has a bit more of an edge than its predecessors. Rally is also pretty buff, as big stuffed animals go. If you miss Charlie and Kitty, don’t despair. The couple will enjoy their retirement years in the UVM Athletic Hall of Fame.

For details on these stories and more: www.uvmathletics.com