Chris Harney has made a habit of taking St. Mary's College… (David Sinclair, handout…)
The first thing you should know about St. Mary's College of Maryland is this: it's kind of remote.
Know how people are always describing a place as being in the middle of nowhere?
Well, St. Mary's is 20 miles past nowhere. And then you hang a right.
Great school, beautiful campus on the St. Mary's River, sure. But Daniel Boone couldn't find this place. It's as far down Maryland's Western Shore as you can go without falling in the Chesapeake Bay.
It's in this unlikely setting that Chris Harney has built a national hoops power. With a 27-3 record, the No. 11-ranked Seahawks will be making their second appearance in three years in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament Friday, taking on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a Texas school.
And get this: Harney has built the program via a steady pipeline of kids from the Baltimore metro region.
You don't find that unusual?
Serious ballers from up here heading off to Sailboat U.?
Look, this is a school where they let you use your library card to rent kayaks.
It's a school that had a mold problem in two dorms in 2011 and the administration said: "No sweat. We'll empty the dorms and have the kid live on a cruise ship on the river until the mold is cleaned up."
But somehow Harney gets these kids, sells them on the school's great academics and the picture-postcard setting and a chance to be part of a winning program built for the long haul.
This year he's got sophomore point guard Nick LaGuerre from Lansdowne High, junior guard Donn Hill from Bel Air, senior guard Devin Spencer from now-defunct Towson Catholic and senior guard James Davenport from Loyola Blakefield.
He's also got senior guard Therm James from City, junior guard Kyle Wise from Calvert Hall, sophomore forward Lee Jordan from Baltimore Free Academy and freshman guard Ben Goldsmith from Centennial.
They bring a Baltimore toughness and savvy to the Seahawks, who are undefeated at home, where they've had only four losses in the past three years. And their confidence is sky-high after an 18-point win over Morrisville State College of upstate New York in the third round of the tournament last week.
Harney calls LaGuerre "kind of a superstar. ... He's a real highlight reel: steals, blocks, dunks, he hits 3s."
But in his eighth season at the school, Harney stresses unselfish play. And his kids buy into it completely. Four of them average double figures in scoring: LaGuerre (13.4 points per game), Hill (12.5), Spencer (11.0 despite being hurt for a long stretch) and junior guard Brendan McFall (10.7).
Nevertheless, with everyone trying to stand out, practice can take on all the calm of an MMA card.
"Lot of hunger in the gym," says James, the City alum. "The competition in practice is something most people wouldn't believe."
James is hard to believe, too, Harney says. He didn't get to play as much as he wanted this season, so he turned into the team's chief motivator — a Nike-wearing cross between Dick Vitale and Tony Robbins.
Before every game, he goes down the bench and asks every player if he's ready to go. Then he gets in Harney's face — "Here I'm nervous, trying to focus," Harney says — and asks him if he's ready, too.
You don't want to say "No, I'm not ready" to Therm James, either. It wouldn't go over well.
In some ways, James is only taking a cue from the intense Harney, who is 163-65 at St. Mary's and just won his third Capital Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honor.
Harney is a great local story, too, a guy who totally backed into coaching. A St. Mary's grad (class of '97), he showed up at Bel Air High years ago looking for a job.
Not a coaching job. Just ... a job.
"My aspirations were to be a history teacher," he says.
But the school said, in effect: "You want to teach? Fine. But you have to coach, too."
So Harney did. He coached JV basketball and baseball and eventually varsity basketball. And found he didn't, well, hate it.
"It wasn't my first love or pursuit," he said. "But as I became involved with basketball, I realized it was just another form of teaching."
He thought coaching could help him "impact some guys' lives, too." And he got good enough at it to lead Bel Air to a 21-3 record in 2003-04, winning Harford County Coach of the Year from The Baltimore Sun.
He'd bring his Bel Air teams to Baltimore to play in fall and summer leagues to toughen them up, expose them to the best competition around. And while he was at it, he worked the gyms like nobody's business.
"I just developed these good relationships with many different coaches," he says. "That was a big factor in the recruiting [at St. Mary's]."
Now Sailboat U. goes for its biggest prize of the Harney era: a Final Four berth.
For the little school in the middle of nowhere, that would be the best March Madness of all.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."