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photograph by
SALLY MCCAY

The Cat Comes Back
T.J. Sorrentine's hard-fought rebound
by JON REIDEL

Men’s basketball associate head coach Jesse Agel ’85 thought he’d died and gone to basketball recruiting heaven. There he stood, all alone, watching a recruit draining jump shots in a gym, while dozens of other basketball coaches obliviously watched a tournament downstairs.

Agel looked on as the 5-foot-11 inch kid from Pawtucket, Rhode Island continued to make feathery jumpers and showcase NBA-level dribbling skills. Agel knew he had to bring the player to Burlington. He turned to UVM assistant coach Curtis Wilson and said: “Lock the doors. And don’t let anyone in here to see him.”

That was the first meeting with the player, who is now a junior at UVM. The second time, Agel saw T.J. Sorrentine put himself through a self-imposed workout that included three hours of plyometrics, shooting, dribbling, weight training and other forms of strength training.

“It was incredible to see,” Agel says. “I knew right then he had all the attributes we liked, all the intangibles. He has the rare combination of talent and the ability to push himself to the extreme. He is never satisfied — ever.”

Sorrentine’s determination led coaches to stick with the player even after he broke both wrists after the end of his senior season in high school. The gamble paid off: Sorrentine became only the third sophomore in conference history to be named America East player of year. But after that season, Sorrentine fell during the pre-season team scrimmage and again broke both of his wrists, missing all of last year’s NCAA tournament run.

“I was shocked and scared when it happened,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t believe it was taken all away so quickly.”

Friends and family back in Pawtucket, knew that it wasn’t all taken away, and never questioned Sorrentine’s ability to make another comeback, says Dave Borges, a sportswriter for the Pawtucket Times who covered Sorrentine in high school.

“I know it had to be killing him to sit out, but he’s a tough kid,” says Borges. “I don’t think anyone around here ever doubted that he had the fire to come back.”

But the second return would prove tougher than the first, as Sorrentine fell out of the mental and physical habits that had transformed him from a very good prep player to one of the best college point guards in the East.

“I got depressed and started gaining weight,” Sorrentine says. “I’m usually real selective about my diet, but I stared eating at Burger King and other fast food restaurants and put on 10 to 12 pounds.”

Adding to the self-doubt was the performance of the basketball team in his absence. The Catamounts steamrolled to the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance without their star point guard. They seemed to be doing just as well without him. But Sorrentine sucked up his pride, remained supportive, and took advantage of the layoff by studying opposing players from his newfound seat on the bench.

“I always believed that the only way to get better was to play,” Sorrentine says. “But I retract that statement because I learned a lot from watching our guys play and seeing their tendencies. I know more about how they play and the best spots to get them the ball.”

Sorrentine says other positive things grew out of his year off the court. His relationship with his father, Tom “Saar” Sorrentine, who was his high school coach, improved. He noticed a difference in the way his father, who drives four hours to Burlington to watch his son play every game, then back home in time to teach the next morning, dealt with his injury the second time.

“In high school I think it was harder for him to differentiate between father and coach,” Sorrentine says. “He was upset when I broke my wrists the first time because I think he felt like I was messing around. He was very supportive this time. Our relationship has always been good, but now it’s the best it’s ever been. He’s a great father.”

When the casts came off last season Sorrentine says he couldn’t move his wrists. The once automatic motion of shooting a basketball was an insurmountable task. After a few weeks, however, he began dribbling and eventually shooting.

“I remember walking out of the hospital with him with casts on both hands,” recalls UVM head coach Tom Brennan. “But I never questioned his drive to come back. God didn’t smile on him by giving him a bunch of great athletic gifts, but he did give him the best gift, and that was a heart like Secretariat.”

David Hehn, a 6-foot-5 guard from Sarnia, Ontario who adeptly handled Sorrentine’s point guard position in his absence, knew his friend was back in full force as soon as practice started in the fall. “Playing with a guy who practices as hard as T.J. makes everyone better,” Hehn says. “You just don’t want to let him down. It’s so hard to match his level of intensity.”

Sorrentine’s comeback wasn’t complete in the minds of many observers until he played in the same game he broke his wrists in one year earlier —the Green and Gold scrimmage in October. Sorrentine says he had a dozen or so voice mail messages from friend, his mother, and an aunt who playfully lobbied him not to play.

Fans saw that Sorrentine was back after he set up a teammate for an easy basket, and then nailed a deep jumper on the next play.

“It’s so hard when you love something that much and it’s taken away from you that quickly,” he says. “Now I savor every minute of it like it’s the last time I’ll ever get to play. I’ll always be smiling when I play.”

Sports Shorts

Alexis Castro, ranked 75th on Blue Star Basketball’s list of top 100 seniors in the high school girls game, has signed a national letter of intent to continue her career at Vermont. Castro, who attends California’s Coronado High School, also received a pre-season All-America honorable mention from Street & Smith’s Magazine. The women’s basketball team opened the year with a 4-2 mark, playing under new head coach Sharon Dawley. Early standouts included Aaron Yantzi, Lani Boardman, and Katie McNamara.

Freshman swimmer Ali Fowler dove into her intercollegiate career by going undefeated in her first four meets. She also notched a freshman record with her time of 10:49:41 in the 1,000-meter freestyle.

The early season highlight for men’s basketball was a near upset of UCLA on their homecourt at Pauley Pavilion. Taylor Coppenrath led the way with 38 points in the game, prompting coach Tom Breannan to say, “Taylor was tremendous tonight and if nothing else, he made a case to become a contender for Pac-10 player of the year.” The Cats were 1-4 after their first 5 games. Catch the Cats live on television February 15 when they take on Boston University at Patrick Gym.

After eight seasons as the head coach of UVM men’s soccer, Roy Patton has resigned to pursue other professional opportunities. Under Patton’s leadership, the Catamounts reached the America East title game twice and posted five winning seasons. In 2000, the Catamounts returned to the NCAA College Cup after a 10-year absence. Longtime assistant coach Roberto Beall ’91 was named interim coach in November as a national search for a new head coach began. The team ended their 2003 season with a 4-9-5 overall record, 3-4-2 and seventh place in the conference.

With a 0-11-2 mark as the semester closed, the men’s hockey team was looking to regroup under new coach Kevin Sneddon. The Cats opened with a tough schedule, six of their opponents were ranked among the nation’s top 15.

Senior Michele Palmer closed out her outstanding college cross country career with a fourth place in the America East Championships, followed by a 37th place finish two weeks later at the NCAA Regionals.

Women’s soccer coach Jodi Kenyon resigned in November after seven seasons at UVM. A national search for her successor is underway. The team posted a 5-9-4 record, 1-6-2 in the league, for the 2003 season.

For the latest on UVM Athletics, check out the new- and-improved web site at www.uvmathletics.com