Saturday, November 15, 2008

Syracuse Coaches Get Warm Welcome at Siena

When's the last time you saw this: the head coaches of opposing teams greeting each other just prior to a game not only with the traditional handshake, but with a kiss on the cheek?

And, it wasn't only the head coaches, but the assistants on each staff exchanging hugs and kisses.

It was almost to be expected, though, considering the familiarity and friendships of the two staffs involved in a women's game Friday night, Nov. 14, when Siena opened its non-conference season by hosting Syracuse.

Familiarity? Syracuse's third-year head coach Quentin Hillsman was a Siena assistant under veteran coach Gina Castelli for two seasons (1999-00, 2000-01), his first job on the college level.

Syracuse's associate head coach Matt Luneau was Castelli's assistant at Siena from the 1997-98 through the 2000-01 seasons, and was responsible for bringing two MAAC Players of the Year, Gunta Basko and Liene Jansone, to Siena from Latvia.

Another Syracuse assistant coach, Mary McKissack-Grimes, played at Siena on some of Castelli's best teams from the 1999-00 through the 2002-03 seasons. While with the Saints she was a key player on the program's only trip to the NCAA tournament (2001), was a two-time team captain and was the MAAC's Defensive Player of the Year for the 2001-02 season.

Syracuse certainly didn't have any trouble finding its way to Siena's Alumni Recreation Center in Loudonville, and neither did fans, many of which got to spend a few minutes of time not only prior to the game, but afterwards, renewing acquaintances with the Siena-connected members of the Syracuse staff.

Syracuse, which received some preseasons votes in Top 25 polls, was tested as Siena stayed within 68-64 with seven minutes remaining before the Orange pulled away for an 89-75 victory before an enthusiastic crowd of 1,245.

"We all have very fond memories of being there together," said Hillsman, prior to the game. "I wouldn't be here (at Syracuse) today if it wasn't for her (Castelli). I've learned so much from her ... her work ethic, the way she demands that her players compete on every possession, and things like that."

Castelli is beginning her 19th season at Siena and has had considerable turnover on her roster since a sixth-place finish in conference play last year. Four of Friday's five starters were making their first college starts. But the ability to play relatively well against Syracuse, despite considerable inexperience, appears to bode well for the Saints.

Syracuse, under Hillsman, has made remarkable progress. After a 9-20 finish in his first season (2006-07), the team finished 22-9 last season, matching the program's best record for a season. The Orange's 1987-88 team also finished 22-9 overall.

Welcome to "Keepin' Track of the MAAC"

Hello, and welcome to "Keepin' Track of the MAAC," a new blog dedicated entirely to Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference basketball news, features, insights, perspective and opinions. In other words, a little of everything.

Your "blogkeeper" is Steve Amedio, whose covered the conference for 18 consecutive years. That made me the most-tenured MAAC "beat" writer in the conference's history.

I primarily covered Siena men's and women's basketball from the 1985-86 season through 2006-07 for The Troy Record and The Schenectady Gazette, newspapers in upstate New York. Before that, I covered Army and Marist basketball for the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record from 1976-1985 and have been around long enough to have seen Mike Krzyzewski's early coaching years at West Point. And, prior to that, I covered college basketball for The Troy Record for three years in the early 1970s.

Over that time, I won more than a dozen writing awards, including a national honor for a series of stories about recruiting and a state award most recently for a story about former UMass basketball standout Rashaun Freeman, a Schenectady High School product, who overcame dyslexia on his way to a college degree.

This blog is intended to be similar to my previous work covering Siena College, only about the entire MAAC. I'll see every team play at least once, many twice, and ... there's also the magic of TV.

The MAAC has become a strong mid-major basketball conference that does things the right way. Those who follow it regularly recognize that there is a high-degree of competitive balance among its teams, both on the men's and women's side, nearly every year. And, the MAAC's ability to compete beyond the scope of its own league is growing, too, as evidenced by two NCAA tournament victories by the Marist women in 2007, a first-round victory in 2008 and a lopsided first-round victory by the Siena men's team over Vanderbilt in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

It has been a pleasure to watch the MAAC's growth, and the expectation is that the conference will continue to move forward.

I look forward to this new opportunity to chronicle the continued progression of the MAAC while telling its stories in this forum.

Hope you'll enjoy it, and stop by often.