Canisius women give school much-needed lift

Updated: March 12, 2005, 10:38 AM ET
Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Terry Zeh laughs about how some people mangle the name Canisius.

The Golden Griffins women's basketball coach has heard them all.

To set the record straight, it's pronounced "Can-EEE-shus,'' and the midtown Buffalo school is a small, 135-year-old Jesuit college that Zeh's team has suddenly helped bring back to national prominence by earning its first NCAA Tournament berth.

"It's great,'' Zeh said last Thursday, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship trophy sitting prominently on a table near his office window. "I'm still trying to get a grasp on the whole thing.''

Zeh is so excited, he finds himself checking out the ESPN ticker every five minutes to see Canisius listed among the teams that have already qualified.

"Obviously, this a great group of players that got it done,'' Zeh said. "And it's good positive publicity for us for sure.''

There's finally something to cheer about at Canisius after a recent string of bad news that overshadowed its once-proud sports tradition.

The decision to cut seven varsity programs, including football, came three years ago. Athletic director Tim Dillon suddenly resigned last month in the wake of a troubled men's hockey team.

The news also turned tragic last spring when junior basketball forward Richard Jones collapsed during a practice and died because of a heart condition.

With Jones' memory prominent, the Lady Golden Griffins (21-9) won six straight games and 11 of their last 12, topped with Sunday's 60-59 victory against Marist to claim the MAAC title.

It's as if a weight was lifted.

"I think of all the bad things that have happened,'' guard Karly Chesko said, "this is a huge step for our school. This is a huge step of getting our name out to people that Canisius College is just more than what they've heard on the news.''

Chesko added that the memory of Jones, who had many friends on the women's team, played an inspirational role.

"Definitely for him,'' Chesko said, recalling how she and her teammates responded after the win. "We looked at each other and we were like, 'Rich is here.' ... We worked our butts off for him.''

The Golden Griffins are the first of four Buffalo-area women's basketball programs to capture an NCAA berth. They're also only the second Canisius team to make the NCAA Tournament in the modern era. The Canisius men have qualified only once, in 1996, since enjoying a three-year run in the 1950s.

Canisius president, the Rev. Vincent Cooke, said the Golden Griffins' victory is the first concrete sign of the progress he has seen in what had been an over-stretched athletic program.

That's why the school in 2002 elected to cut back from 23 teams, reinvesting the money it saved into making the 16 remaining programs stronger.

"I don't think a lot of people understood what we were doing here,'' Cooke said. "It takes awhile to really move a total athletic program. You don't do it overnight.''

He's confident that the athletic department is in a position to be competitive and play an effective role in promoting Canisius.

"It's that kind of building up of the image of Canisius College that we've been trying to do ... across the board,'' Cooke said. "And athletics is an important part of that public display, that window that we show into the world.''

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press