Solidifying Their Legacy
By Michael Lowther
Special to GoHolyCross.com
Four years ago, Crusader basketball fans were introduced to a new recruiting class, eager to start their legacy at Holy Cross in the fall of 2013. With each recruiting class, it is hard to predict which incoming freshmen will specifically contribute down the line and lead the team over the next four seasons. However, glancing back over their four years, each member of the Holy Cross basketball class of 2017 has played an important and specific role for the program. The senior student-athletes all possess the values that future Crusader stars will continue to emulate both their games and mindsets after.
Forward Malachi Alexander, guard Robert Champion, center Matt Husek and guard Anthony Thompson have been playing together since the start of their freshman year. They were later joined by walk-ons Thomas Kennedy and Patrick Rielly, while Riley Criswell and John Roque have assisted the program behind the scenes. This week, these seniors will take part in their final two regular season home games at the Hart Center at the Luth Athletic Complex. The Crusaders will play host to Loyola (Md.) on Feb. 22 (7:05 p.m.) and Boston University on Feb. 25 (2:05 p.m.).
The Class Transition
The first step from high school athletics to Division I college athletics can be a long and difficult road for many young athletes. “Basketball at the collegiate level is much faster than at the high school level,” explained Champion. “For me, that was the biggest transition that I faced when entering college.” As a result of the heightened speed of the game, every member of the class highlighted the importance strength and conditioning has at the collegiate level. “I had to get in better physical shape as well as improve my dribbling, shooting and passing skills,” said Alexander. “Every coach, manager and teammate I've had at Holy Cross has helped me do those things.”
Bending, But Never Breaking
Over the course of their four years, the seniors were faced with personal and team highs and lows. After posting a 20-14 overall record in their freshman season and a 14-16 mark in their sophomore season, Holy Cross underwent a coaching change with the hiring of Bill Carmody. “The biggest test for the senior class was the coaching change after our sophomore year,” explained Thompson. “We stuck by each other and decided to finish what we started together.”
It was at this moment, the team learned how to deal with sudden change and the ups and downs of the game. It was always understood that a Patriot League championship was the team goal, and the team needed to bond as brothers to succeed. “There was a time during the hiring process where we didn't have a coach, so we needed to come together and hold each other accountable,” said Husek.
The Family Expands
At the start of the 2015-2016 season, new additions were made to the class of 2017, as Kennedy and Rielly accomplished the goal of playing Division I basketball by earning walk-on spots. “I just waited for the right moment, and that time came when the walk-ons who were on the team during my freshman and sophomore years graduated,” explained Rielly. The walk-ons play a valuable role for the team that might go unnoticed by outsiders. “Our role on the team is helping the guys prepare for games and motivating them to succeed,” said Rielly.
Dreams Came True
The Crusaders continued their play at the start of their junior season under Carmody. Transition was difficult for the Crusaders through most of the regular season as they posted a 5-13 record in Patriot League games and finished ninth overall in the league. This discouraging record and low seeding could create reasonable doubt for many people, but not the Crusaders.
Once the Patriot League Tournament started, Holy Cross moved on from the regular season and possessed a ‘one game at a time' mentality. In order to win the Patriot League, the Crusaders would need to win four away games in a row, something they had not done all season, going 0-9 on the road in conference play. “Prior to the Patriot League Tournament, our team was struggling quite a bit,” said Rielly. “We came together right before the tournament, and knew we could win if we played our best.”
Through the leadership of the Class of 2017 and the willingness to dream, the Crusaders miraculously solidified their legacy by producing one of the greatest underdog stories of all-time and winning the Patriot League Tournament, with Alexander taking home the Tournament MVP honors. This was the first time the Crusaders won the Patriot League Tournament and clinched a berth into the NCAA Tournament since 2007. To add to this, Holy Cross went on to defeat Southern 59-55 and give the school its first NCAA Tournament win since 1953.
The goal for freshmen when they first step on campus is to win a conference championship. This class not only accomplished the goal, but surpassed it and completed a dream. “The guys who are in this senior class have become like brothers of mine,” explained Champion. “Accomplishing the common goal that we came with four years ago of winning a Patriot League Championship definitely brought us closer together and it gives us even more of an incentive to do it again.”
The Hidden Part of the Family
The senior class is not limited to the just the players who see time on the court. Behind the scenes, the team receives help from Criswell and Roque. Criswell was originally a part of the incoming class in the fall of 2013, but has been unable to play due to an injury suffered during his senior year of high school. Even though he has not stepped on the court in a uniform, Criswell remained committed to the program and has assisted the coaching staff throughout his four years. “It has been a privilege to continue to be a part of the program despite not being able to play on the court,” expressed Criswell. "These guys, specifically the senior class, supporting me as I dealt with the reality of my time as a player being cut short meant more to me than they will ever know.”
Roque joined the program as a team manager for the 2014-2015 season, and has been dedicated to working with the Crusaders for the last three years. “Riley and John really do a lot for the team,” said Champion. “For me personally, both John and Riley are two of my good friends on campus. Having guys with their attitude and guys who you enjoy being around all day makes basketball that much more enjoyable.”
The Dream Is Passed Down
The dream does not cease to exist when the seniors graduate in May. This specific class of seniors pass on their work ethic and the realization that dreams can come true. By introducing the winning feeling to the young Crusaders and future recruits, the outgoing senior class has set a precedent for what Holy Cross basketball means. As for the remaining Crusaders players and future recruits, the message is clear. “Play for your brothers and the guys you are around every day,” preached Thompson. “There's no better feeling than winning a championship with guys you've created a bond with.” Or simply yet accurately stated by Alexander, “Get buckets.”
But their work is not done yet. The seniors still have two regular season games to play, and will then strive to bring another championship home during the 2017 Patriot League Tournament.
Tickets to see the Crusaders in action are on sale now. Make sure you don't miss the opportunity to see the best collegiate basketball in Central Massachusetts! Remaining regular season home games come on Wednesday, Feb. 22, against Loyola (7:05 p.m.) and Saturday, Feb. 25, against Boston University (2:05 p.m.). Tickets for Holy Cross basketball can be purchased online at GoHolyCross.com/tickets or over the phone by calling 1-844-GOCROSS.
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