Commentary

Marist now far more than Cinderella

Originally Published: November 20, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- At some point, people are going to have to stop calling Marist a Cinderella. The clock has ticked its way past midnight more than 600 times since the Red Foxes came to national prominence by advancing to the Sweet 16 in the 2007 NCAA tournament, and still the program on the banks of the Hudson shows no signs of leaving the stage.

Brian Giorgis
AP Photo/Matt SlocumA former high school coach in Poughkeepsie, Brian Giorgis didn't move far when he took over the Marist women. But he has taken the Red Foxes to new heights, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007.

Indeed, far from employing magic to transform surplus pumpkins into transportation come March, the story unfolding in Poughkeepsie reads closer to that of the farmer who wakes up at dawn to till the fields that produce a crop, year after year.

Two seasons removed from that stunning trip to the regional semifinals in Dayton and a spot opposite eventual national champion Tennessee, and one season removed from earning a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and advancing to the second round, Marist is on the verge of establishing a perennial presence on the national scene. But as Gonzaga managed on the men's side, doing so will depend on a successful transfer of power from one generation of players to the next -- having lost four seniors after last season, only five players on this year's roster were around for the Sweet 16 game two seasons ago.

"Some people, you don't know with their expectations of two years in a row with this [level of success]," coach Brian Giorgis cautioned before the start of the season. "They don't look at how experienced we were last year and how young we are this year."

Expectations like those could have long ago crushed even the sturdiest of glass slippers. Instead, the national polls -- the Red Foxes remain on the edge of the top 25 -- and the expectations hanging heavy in the Poughkeepsie air confirm the team's place as more than a spring oddity.

When you start facing unreasonable expectations -- Giorgis notes that his program is the only one in the country to increase its win total each of the past seven seasons and jokes it'll be a tough act to follow after last season's 32-3 record -- you're doing something right.

Marist opened its season with a 74-56 win against Albany in front of more than 2,100 fans at McCann Field House, a typical crowd for the team's home but nearly three times the average home attendance for teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and nearly double what the Red Foxes drew as recently as four years ago. What sway the program holds in Poughkeepsie was equally evident at McCann several weeks earlier, as hundreds of fans filed in on a Friday night for nothing more exciting than a short intrasquad scrimmage and some shooting contests to celebrate the start of practice.

"To me, we're the college version of 'Hoosiers,' where people just stop you all the time," Giorgis said of the team's reception around town. "These kids go to the mall, [and people ask] 'How you going to be this year?'"

Unlike fictional coach Norman Dale at Hickory High School in the film, or even his real-life counterpart at Milan High School, Marvin Wood, the man who fueled that obsession is not a mysterious outsider. Giorgis is Poughkeepsie, through and through. A legendary high school coach at the city's Our Lady of Lourdes High School, he compiled a 451-44 record with 19 league titles in as many seasons on the basketball court and led the school's baseball, softball and volleyball teams to the state semifinals. Also the athletic director at the school and quite content with his lot in life, his in-town relocation had as much to do with Marist convincing him to take the job as with anyone convincing Marist to hire him. But once there, it didn't take him long to begin the slow process of constructing what to so many seemed to appear out of nowhere the past two seasons.

In 2001-02, the year before Giorgis arrived, Marist went 11-17 and drew an average of 555 fans to its home games. Two seasons later, it went 20-11 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time. But even establishing a base camp at the top of the conference left considerable elevation between the program and a national profile. Julianne Viani played for Giorgis at Our Lady of Lourdes and knew she was coming to a good environment when she transferred to Marist from Rhode Island as a freshman. But making a run like the one she enviously watched her older sister, Jenna, make on Villanova's Elite Eight team in 2002-03 "surpassed any expectation I might have had," she explained.

Our [program] is not about going to the Final Four. Ours is about what are you going to do four years from now? We want to provide you with a great experience. You have a chance to experience what these kids did, Sweet 16 and stuff, but now you've got a piece of paper that's going to make you competitive in the job market.

-- Marist coach Brian Giorgis

Or as junior All-America candidate Rachele Fitz put it, "When I first came into Marist, I didn't expect anything like that to come out of it, to be honest."

Fitz said she always envisioned playing at a big school, and coming out of Ohio as a 6-foot forward with ample athleticism, it wouldn't have taken much for that to become a reality. Instead, the combination of a coaching staff and players she liked and Marist's well-respected fashion design major eventually sold her on a smaller environment.

"That's what we still sell," Giorgis said. "Ours is not about going to the Final Four. Ours is about what are you going to do four years from now? We want to provide you with a great experience. You have a chance to experience what these kids did, Sweet 16 and stuff, but now you've got a piece of paper that's going to make you competitive in the job market."

Added to a veteran core that included Viani, Alisa Kresge, Meg Dahlman, Nikki Flores and Sarah Smrdel, Fitz gave the team the go-to scorer it needed to compete on equal footing against the likes of Ohio State and DePaul, Marist's respective NCAA first-round victims. Fitz and Viani could only shake their heads in repressed awe when Giorgis brought up Sylvia Fowles, the massively agile All-American who helped LSU eliminate Marist in the second round last season. But to at least some degree, that's how MAAC teams must feel going against Fitz, the reigning conference Player of the Year who averaged 18.5 points and nearly seven free-throw attempts per game last season.

And while all but Fitz and Viani are gone from that group, their collective success has opened doors when it comes to seeking out their replacements. Fitz and Viani combined to score 49 points in the season-opening win against Albany, including a career-best 26 from Viani, but the freshman class of Kristine Best, Brandy Gang, Emily Stallings and Corielle Yarde chipped in 44 of the 71 minutes Giorgis called on his bench to provide.

"Blue Chip rated it as a top-50 class, and whether it is or isn't, they have pressure on them to live up to how people have ranked them," Giorgis said at the preseason practice. "I think it's a different mindset with the people we're talking to, the people that write to us, just people who we never -- we have a kid in the crowd now who is in HoopGurlz top 50, top 25. That usually didn't happen before."

Coach and players are all quick to say that even if Marist's place in the national picture is theirs to define, their attention remains squarely on winning the MAAC. Last season's gaudy record and eventual seed suggest the Red Foxes would have received a place in the NCAA tournament regardless of what happened in the conference tournament, but the league's automatic bid remains the most likely guarantee of postseason passage. Road games against Oklahoma, Tulsa, Hartford and East Carolina (the last on a neutral court in Miami) are all obvious potential stumbling blocks for a young team. And despite a 51-3 record in conference play the past three seasons, a loss or two or three could lurk therein.

Of course, even if the team isn't looking past any opponents, it knows by now what it will see if it does ultimately reach the distant lands of March and April.

"But when it's tournament time, it's like this is what we're in basketball for," Fitz said. "To make it there, to play against these supposedly, like, these bigger teams, these better conferences and see if we can hang with them and live up to our expectations that are being talked about. … It would be so disappointing not to be able to get there again, because we've had a little taste of it."

Any clock that could have chimed the end of Marist's success long ago fell silent, but times are undeniably changing. More than anyone else, Viani represents that balance between past and future. The last basketball link to Giorgis' high school coaching career, she and fellow redshirt senior Courtney Kolesar are also the last players to spend a season at Marist that concluded before the second round of the NCAA tournament. When she goes, so goes the time when Marist really was a Cinderella without any expectations.

But after seven years around Giorgis, Viani qualifies as an expert on the one constant who will remain.

"He's the same coach that I always remembered," she said. "He's very intense. He knows his X's and O's. He scouts teams like there's no tomorrow. He's the same great coach he's always been. He's stepped up the intensity at the college level, I think, for obvious reasons. But I can't say that with him sitting here; he's a great coach."

"She's called me 'Giorgis' for seven years," the coach interjected with mock consternation. "Not 'Coach,' not 'Mister.' Just 'Giorgis.' But most of them do."

Some things never change. Playing in a small gym that makes it feel like the whole town has come in out of the cold, with the local guy from Lourdes sitting on the bench with his arms crossed high over his suit top, Marist is always going to feel like the little guy. But this isn't the little engine that could. It's the little engine that has.

And whether it's this season or next, it will again.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.