Gaels set to make history
The St. Mary’s College Gaels have always been at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to Bay Area college sports. Stanford and Cal brag about national championships in numerous sports, and are always ranked among the best athletic programs in the country in overall success.
San Jose State has their successful Dick Vermeil and Bill Walsh eras, plus have a solid track history.
The Gaels’ brethren in the West Coast Conference, USF and Santa Clara, have experienced many championships and each have a gloried history. The Dons won national championships in basketball in the mid ’50s with Bill Russell, and were a force in the Bill Cartwright years. The Broncos always compete nationally in soccer and volleyball, claim Steve Nash and Brandy Chastain as an alums, and are frequent participants in postseason basketball.
St. Mary’s? Playboy once ranked the school No. 1 in beer drinking per capita, an honor that embarrassed administration. Other than that, there hasn’t been much notoriety for the tiny school in the East Bay’s Moraga Valley.
The Gaels’ basketball team made the NCAA tournament in 1959, led by Tom Meschery, who enjoyed a long career in the NBA, and an even longer career as an honors teacher at Reno High School.
A quick 30 years later, St. Mary’s returned to the tournament in 1989, but were “one and done” after a loss in the first round to a talented Clemson club. Head coach Lynn Nance bolted to Washington, and the Gaels again fell back to their customary level of mediocrity.
Ernie Kent built a team that qualified for the tournament in 1997, but were sent home in the first round by Tim Duncan and Wake Forest. Kent accepted a more lucrative job at Oregon, his alma-mater, the next season, and again the Gaels spiraled downward.
In the 2001, the team stumbled to a 2-27 mark, and were in complete disarray. St. Mary’s hired a journeyman assistant named Randy Bennett, who promised long suffering Gael followers that better years are ahead. “Where have we heard this before?” thought backers of the red and blue.
Even with sparse talent, the Gaels started winning, and people started noticing the team from the little school in the East Bay. Bennett led the team to nine wins his first year and hasn’t experienced a losing record since.
Bennett found a diamond in the rough in 2002 in a skinny Australian named Daniel Kickert, who entered the program with little notoriety, and left as St. Mary’s all-time leading scorer. Other talented recruits, many of whom transferred from other college teams, found their way to the beautiful campus.
In 2005, the team qualified for the NCAA tournament, four short seasons after winning just two games. In a valiant effort against Southern Illinois, the Gaels played hard, but again fell short, losing in the opening round.
Much to the surprise and delight of Gaels everywhere, Bennett didn’t desert the team for greener pastures and signed a long-term contract. There was hope for the future in the Gaeldom!
This year’s team, currently 25-6, has beaten powers Oregon, Seton Hall, Drake as well as WCC perennial champion Gonzaga. In December, the St. Mary’s entered the top 25 for the first time since 1989, and were ranked a school-record six weeks in a row.
The Gaels have a distinct Australian flavor, with four Aussies on the team, including WCC newcomer of the year, Patty Mills, a lightning-quick point guard who is part Aborigine and part Pacific Islander. Gaels students and fans have adopted the foreign players, as evidenced by the Australian flags that decorate McKeon Pavilion. When one of the Australians makes a basket, home fans chant, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi”, in tribute to their players from “Down Under”.
The Gaels also feature Diamon Simpson from Hayward, a slasher and scoring machine who earned WCC Defensive Player of the Year, and fiery Omar Samhan from nearby San Ramon, an imposing presence under the basket.
When the Gaels take the court Friday against Miami, Fla., it will be the first time in history that St. Mary’s has qualified for the postseason twice in one decade. If they do win that first, they will have accomplished a feat that hasn’t occurred since Eisenhower was president almost 50 years ago.
A win by St. Mary’s will light up phone lines between Gaels throughout the country as they celebrate success that many thought would never happen at the tiny Moraga campus.