SPORTS FOCUS: Mount St. Mary’s awaits its new adventure

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When you think of Mount St. Mary’s, you probably think men’s basketball.

After all, the Mountaineers, playing on an NCAA Division I campus just 16 miles from Waynesboro, has long been a popular destination for hoops enthusiasts. Along with taking in the boisterous atmosphere of 3,121-seat capacity Knott Arena in Emmitsburg, Maryland, many made the short rip just to see the man with the bowtie – head coach Jim Phelan.

Jim Phelan, Mount St. Mary’s head men’s basketball coach from 1954 to 2003. PROVIDED PHOTO

Phelan coached at Mount St. Mary’s from the late 1954 until 2003. Along the way, Phelan guided the Mount to an NCAA Division II national championship in 1962, a national runner-up spot in 1981 and led the Blue and White to a Northeast Conference men’s basketball title in 1995 – seven years after the school joined the conference.

The air was electric at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament selection show leading up to the Mountaineers first-round matchup with Kentucky. They lost by a wide margin but getting the chance to play in what became known simply as The Big Dance (Phelan quipped to ESPN reporter Mark Malone, “I’m not too old to dance.”) was enough to prompt virtually all in attendance to erupt with applause.

Phelan’s team again won the NEC tournament title in 1999 and competed in its second NCAA tournament, losing to Michigan State.

Phelan’s presence at Mount St. Mary’s home games from the year he retired until he was unable to venture into Knott Arena was sublime but palpable. He died in June 2021 at the ripe old age of 92 but will be remembered for his devotion to the small college in rural Maryland.

Phelan, a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia, never tired of life in a small town. In fact, Phelan was selected by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors in 1951. Phelan was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He had a career record of 830-524.

The Mountaineers went on to earn berths in the Big Dance in 2008, 2014, 2017 and 2021. Head coach Dan Engelstad, who succeeded Jamion Christian.

Dan Engelstad, Mount St. Mary’s head men’s basketball coach since 2018. PROVIDED PHOTO

On May 2 of this year, Mount St. Mary’s held a press conference to announce its departure from the NEC after a 33-year run. The university will play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

The Mount will compete in the MAAC for men’s and women’s soccer, cross country, golf, tennis, swimming and diving, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s water polo, track & field, men’s and women’s lacrosse, softball, and baseball.

Schools encompassing the MAAC hail from three states – New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Teams reside in and around the New York, Philadelphia, and Buffalo metros with a pair of teams in the Hudson River Valley.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) is in its 41st year of competition during the 2021-22 academic year. Current conference members include: Canisius College, Fairfield University, Iona College, Manhattan College, Marist College, Monmouth University, Niagara University, Quinnipiac University, Rider University, Saint Peter’s University, and Siena College.

Marist College, Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University and Rider University are all former members of the NEC, which was founded in 1980. The Mount joined the conference in 1987.

During the 33-years in the NEC, the Mount won 49 conference championships, including seven from women’s tennis, six from men’s cross country and men’s basketball and five from women’s basketball and women’s outdoor track & field. Mount St. Mary’s continues as an NEC member for the rest of this academic year and will continue to be eligible for any postseason championships.

While the university and its patrons no doubt look forward to their partnership with a new conference, one wonders if the Mount will be viewed as the Little Brother of the MAAC. It may take some adjustments before the university’s athletic teams gain their footing, but, like their quantum leap from Division II to Division I, it may not take long for the Mount to make a name for itself.