EMMITSBURG — If you like your March Madness stories improbable, this is the team for you.
The Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers are a rag-tag group of transfers and unsung recruits who, two years ago, watched their previous coach resign midway through an 8-21 season. Their current coach, Jamion Christian, is all of 31 years old with two years experience heading a program.
They lost their first five games of the season and stood 3-9 when the calendar turned to 2014.
They trailed by eight with less than a minute to go in the opening game of the Northeast Conference tournament.
In the final, they faced conference bully Robert Morris on its home court in Pittsburgh.
But the Mount won that game and not by a little. And with three high-scoring seniors leading an all-court attack Christian has dubbed "Mayhem," this group hungers to prove it's more than a cutesy story from the hills of rural Maryland.
"I want to enjoy the moment, but I also want to win some games," says senior Julian Norfleet, the Mount's all-conference point guard. "Everybody looks at it as being a Cinderella story. But I think we really have a chance. The way we play, it's so hard for teams to prepare for us."
The Mountaineers (16-16) will get their chance Tuesday night in the against Albany in the First Four, and if they win that one, two days later against No. 1 Florida.
They'll do so as the last team standing from a group of Maryland schools that seemed full of more likely Big Dance candidates when the season dawned in November.
Seniors Norfleet, Rashad Whack and Sam Prescott — who average 46.2 points between them — will tell you it's no surprise. They watched this team remain calm and unified through a ferocious early schedule.
Perhaps they earned their serenity by enduring chaos to rebuild a program from rubble. Or perhaps it flows from their endlessly upbeat coach, who walked the same footsteps as a Mount captain a decade before.
'I owe my entire life to this place'
Describing Christian as baby-faced rather understates his youthful sheen.
As he ducks into the campus' old gym for his team's first practice since its NEC triumph, the coach's wiry frame appears almost lost in a baggy Mount sweatsuit. Later, he'll jump into the fray and, with his cap flipped backwards, look like just another player.
The Mountaineers don't usually practice in this space, which looks like nothing so much as a musty, abandoned airplane hangar. But they've been displaced from their arena by a baton-twirling tournament.
"I like it," Christian says with an impish grin. "We need to get the confetti sweat off these guys."
This isn't your typical hot young coach, looking to carve another notch on his resume with an improbable turnaround at some out-of-the-way locale. As Christian will happily tell you, the Mount played a major part in making him a man. It's a legacy he yearns to carry forward.
With surrounding farmland sloping gently up to the Catoctin Mountains and a decided lack of cosmopolitan bustle, this place presents an alien picture to the city kids who fill the Mount's roster. At about 2,000 students, the 208-year-old Catholic university is smaller than some high schools.
"It's an intimate campus where people actually care about you," says Christian, a 2004 graduate. "I know that sounds really simple. But I can't tell you how many professors I come across every day, who were here when I was here as a player, who really helped me."
Reflecting on that 17-year-old who arrived from New Kent, Va., Christian says he wasn't ready to be a college student, academically or personally.
"And the professors here put their arms around me," he says. "They made sure not just that I went to class but that I understood what it took to be a successful college student. By the end, I was able to turn myself into it. I owe my entire life to this place."
His chief mentor was the Mount's legendary coach, Jim Phelan, who guided the program to 830 wins in a still-astonishing 49 years. Christian was part of the last class to play for Phelan and served as his captain for two seasons.
"I was 17 when I committed here, and he took a chance on me," Christian says. "I didn't really pay off for him as a basketball player. But I like to think my reward has been in coming back here and trying to continue his legacy through the work we do every day. He's been a guy who coaches me every day since I was 17 years old."
In fact, Phelan, now 84, still stops by his former player's office to share insight on various experiences, coaching and otherwise.
Christian's career took an unexpected twist when Milan Brown replaced Phelan before his senior season. Though he remained a captain for Brown, he no longer played much.
"I came in as a pass-first point guard and left as a poor-shooting two guard," he says, laughing.