Tourney a first for Delaware Valley
2011 NCAA tournament appearance is first for Aggies
From the outside looking in, Casey Stitzel seemed crazy.
It didn’t make sense to take over an NCAA Division III college basketball program that was 3-22 a year before his arrival.
It didn’t make sense to attempt to revive a program that had never won a Freedom Conference championship. In fact, the Aggies were winless in the conference during that misery-filled three-win season.
And it didn’t make sense to dream of one day guiding Delaware Valley College to the promised land of the NCAA tournament.
Crazy? Without a doubt. But the only craziness Stitzel is dealing with today is preparing his team for its first ever appearance in the national tournament.
“It’s been a wild week, but I don’t mind it at all,” Stitzel said. “To win a conference title, get into the tournament and see the program come as far it has is a dream come true.”
Delaware Valley (17-10) will try to keep the dream alive Friday night when it battles Virginia Wesleyan in the opening round of the tournament Friday night at the Batten Student Center in Norfolk.
The Aggies will have their hands full against the Marlins (23-4), the 10th-ranked team in the nation, but if you think for a moment that they are concerned with the challenge, think again.
“Anything is possible, and all of the pressure is on Virginia Wesleyan,” Stitzel said. “No one associated with Division III basketball thinks we have a chance to win this game. We just have to play our game and give ourselves a chance to win at the end. We believe we can compete.”
Stitzel always believed this moment was possible. When he interviewed for the job, he showed a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism.
“I am an energetic guy and I was confident I could turn things around here,” Stitzel said. “I knew the first thing we had to do was upgrade the talent and create good team chemistry. Things have worked out well.”
The road to success, however, wasn't smooth. The Aggies finished 13-13 during the 2008-09 campaign, including a 13-12 record in the regular season, which, by the way, was the first winning campaign since 1987.
Last season, Delaware Valley finished 12-13. Hope, however, was on the horizon.
The Aggies won 12 of their first 18 games but got caught in the grip of a four-game losing streak late in the year.
Rather than give up, they fought back as if their lives depended on it, breaking out of the funk with a thrilling 82-81 win against Wilkes on the road. Jason Goldheimer hit three free throws with no time remaining to secure the win and Delaware Valley hasn’t lost since.
“We had to challenge our players to be tough, and the players answered the challenge,” Stitzel said. “They stepped things up another gear and found a way to win a big game on the road. It showed the heart of our team.”
That heart was on display again over the weekend as the Aggies stunned two-time defending conference champion DeSales 79-58 in the Freedom Conference title game at James Work Gymnasium in Doylestown, Pa.
The Aggies outscored the Bulldogs 42-17 in the final 14 minutes of the game to become only the second team in any sport at the school to earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Senior guard James Jones has been the undisputed leader of the team, averaging 21 points per outing. He was the MVP of the conference tournament and has made his last 58 free throws. He has also nailed 33 treys.
He was named the player of the year in the conference and set a single-season school scoring record with 566 points.
Sophomore forward/center Jeremy Beckett is clicking for 16.8 points per game while Goldheimer, a senior guard, and Chris Ellis, a senior guard/forward, are pouring in 10.6 points per outing.
No matter what happens in the tournament, there is no doubt that Delaware Valley has established itself as a powerhouse on the rise.
“Our last three games at home, including the two conference tournament games we played, were all sold out and there were recruits there watching,” Stitzel said. “Everyone wants to play for a winner and our success is big for the program. We have a bright future.”