Winning the Centennial Conference was once considered a laughable goal for the Swarthmore men’s basketball team. In the 2011-2012 season, the team went 3-22, posting a losing record for a fifteenth straight year. Now, the program is virtually unrecognizable since Coach Landry Kosmalski, a former Division I basketball star at Davidson College, took over back in 2012. This team is confident, poised, and, perhaps most importantly, holds a strong belief in the system they’ve been taught. It took a few years for Kosmalski to teach the system he learned at Davidson, but it certainly has been worth the wait. Just three years after Kosmalski took the helm, the Garnet made the Centennial Conference Championship game, and haven’t missed it since. Now, winning the Centennial Conference isn’t a laughable goal. It’s the expectation.
This past weekend, Swarthmore hosted the conference championships for the third straight year. Tarble Pavilion held three games over the course of the two days— two semi-finals and the finals. Johns Hopkins defeated Ursinus College 91-80 in the first game on Saturday. Soon after, droves of Swarthmore students piled into the stands of gym, eager to support the team as they took on the Washington College Shoremen. In the front row of the stands, fans wearing everything from a banana costume to a vintage Swarthmore basketball jersey could be found.
A hot start gave the Garnet a 7-0 lead out the gate, a lead the team never relinquished. Behind the support of the Swarthmore faithful, the team played some of the best defense it had all year, holding the Shoremen to a 21.9 percent field goal percentage in the first half. Although the team did not have the strongest performance behind the arc in the first half, going just one for twelve from three, they found their shooting form in the second half, hitting six of eleven three-point attempts. The game ended 77-59 in favor of Swarthmore, who then turned their attention to the upcoming Johns Hopkins game which would happen the following evening.
For the second straight year, it was Swarthmore-Hopkins in the Centennial Conference Championship, a common sight these days across all sports. Starting last fall, Swarthmore has played Hopkins in two men’s basketball championships, two women’s soccer championships, a volleyball championship, and a baseball championship. Although Haverford has typically been viewed as Swarthmore’s rival due to proximity and overall similarity, most athletes would agree that Hopkins is the biggest game of their respective seasons. Funnily enough, athletic excellence and academic rigour are seemingly all the two schools have in common. Hopkins has graduate schools, a much larger student body, and no Quaker roots unlike Swarthmore’s neighbor Haverford. However, when many seasons converge to a Swarthmore-Hopkins matchup, it is no surprise to see this rivalry.
In basketball, the Swarthmore-Hopkins rivalry is a little more personal. Hopkins head coach Josh Loeffler is a Swarthmore graduate from 2003, who played four years of basketball at the school. He and his wife Helen Leitner ’04 are even a matchbox couple. There was no doubt Loeffler was ready to do anything to beat his alma mater as he did in last year’s Conference Championship, when Swarthmore lost 57-61 at home. However, this loss was not on the minds of Swarthmore players come game time.
“Hopkins is a really strong conference opponent and we’ve had some really great battles with them,” said guard Abass Sallah ’21. “While we could have focused on this being a revenge game, I think we more focused on what we could to be our best selves knowing that the results would follow.”
At 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, spectators filed into the stands, two teams emerged from the locker rooms, and the game was underway.
From the beginning, it was to be Swarthmore’s night. Less than fifteen seconds into the game, guard Conor Harkins ’21 drilled a three and the stands erupted. As Hopkins collected the ball, hundreds students shouted and screamed, doing whatever they could to unhinge the Blue Jays’ offense. In the stands could be spotted a dozen or so obscure basketball jerseys, several unidentifiable costumes, a few massive headshots of Garnet basketball players and a certain Mike Hill, and one Phineas the Phoenix. It was a sight to behold.
Game photographer Alyssa Nathan ’21 described the view from courtside as a completely new experience: “From where I stand I get to see the energy on the court, the excitement on the bench, and the rowdiness in the stands,” said Nathan. “I don’t know if anyone has a better view than me. You could feel the desire and the determination coming off every player from the second they started warming up til the moment they were holding the trophy.”
Sallah said the chance to play at home over the weekend was special, but the team was going to win no matter where they played: “We got to share the experience with friends and family, but I think we were prepared to go anywhere and win.”
In front of the rowdy crowd, Hopkins missed a layup attempt, senior guard Cam Wiley gathered the ball, and the Garnet went right back down the court. This time, it was freshman guard George Visconti who hit an open three, giving the Garnet a 6-0 lead. Hopkins responded with a three of their own, but a Nate Schafer ’20 layup and block got the crowd fired up once again. Junior Zac O’Dell made a three of his own and added a layup the next possession to secure a 13-3 lead for the Garnet. Just as in the semi-final, this lead was not given up once all game.
The Garnet went into halftime with a twenty point lead and the game was all but over. However, despite Swarthmore’s best efforts, Hopkins clawed their way back within ten in the second half. Things looked like they were about to get interesting, but then Hopkins player Daniel Liva missed an open dunk. Swarthmore took advantage of the momentum swing and closed out the game on a 9-0 run. Maintaining focus with big leads is a difficult task for most teams, but the Garnet had been coached well.
“One of our main focuses is attacking for the full 40 minutes,” said Sallah. “This is something that we try to live by regardless of the score or situation and it has helped us maintain and extend leads all season.”
The game ended in a 79-61 victory, and Swarthmore was crowned Centennial Conference Champions once again. Although athletic director Adam Hertz tried his best to thwart the fans’ attempts to storm the court, there was soon a massive clash of students and players, celebrating the victory. Players and coaches cut the nets, raised the trophy, and then went off to celebrate.
Senior guard Cam Wiley was named MVP of the tournament, which marked the second time he has won the award. Wiley is one of two players in the history of the conference to win the award twice. In the final, Wiley played one of his best games of the year, shooting 72.7 percent from the floor and scoring a game high 27 points.
Swarthmore, which is currently ranked No. 6 in country for Division III Men’s Basketball, will host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament this upcoming weekend. The team’s ranking is its highest ever. They will play Mitchell College, a member of the New England Collegiate Conference that recently claimed their respective conference title and boast a 19-9 record. No. 12 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (22-4) and Skidmore College (19-7) are the other two teams that will be coming to Swarthmore to play. The winners of Swarthmore vs. Mitchell and MIT vs. Skidmore will face off this weekend as well. Last year, the college made a memorable run into the Elite Eight of the tournament, defeating New England College, Wesleyan University, and Plattsburgh State before falling to Springfield College.
The rise of Swarthmore’s Men’s basketball team has news outlets calling the program the next Division III powerhouse. In a “Main Line Today” article from a week ago, Adam Hertz gave Coach Kosmalski a lot of credit for his dedication to the system he brought to Swarthmore, especially in the early years of Swarthmore’s rise when the results were still not entirely positive.
“Watching a lot of Landry’s practices his first year, I sensed the kids couldn’t get it,” Hertz said. “I asked him, ‘Shouldn’t you adjust the practices?’ He said, ‘No. I’m teaching a system.’”
It has been that persistence on Kosmalski’s behalf that has instilled the “Next Play” mentality each team member plays with and ensured the team is ready for another deep run into the NCAA tournament.