By Mark Simon
It's around this time of year that I like to tell people that I have the best March Madness story ever. And it's not one that they're going to see highlights of on CBS or TNT or ESPN. Because it's a hidden gem, one found on the campus of the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
There are many challenges that come with being a cadet at Coast Guard, from Swab Summer to early morning wake-up calls, to summer commitments to the many rules and disciplines with which one must deal. It's not a place where you think basketball power.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the 2007-08 Bears run to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Tournament. But this isn't a one-year story. It's a two-year story, a four-year story and a five-year story.
It begins in the 2003-04 season, when the Bears went 3-20. Head coach Pete Barry said to me before the next season began: "I'm not going through that again."
The good news was that recruiting went well. It went really well. This was during a prime time for great student-athletes coming to the academy.
Behold the Magnificent 7 as they came to be known: freshmen Al Sowers, Grant Johnson, Jeff Prebeck, Craig Johnson, Steve Blum, Donatas Siaudinis and team manager, Zach Robertson.
You could tell almost immediately that these guys were going to be really good. Sowers, Grant Johnson and Prebeck were a year older than most freshmen. They had the benefit of an extra year of school (Sowers and Prebeck at prep, Grant at Georgia) to physically and mentally mature. Craig Johnson was an All-State standout from Oregon. Coast Guard didn't typically get players of his caliber. Blum didn't play much early on, but he was near the top of the class academically. His basketball moments would come. As for Siaudinis, he made quick friends with everyone, telling them "I'm Showtime!"
The Bears went 13-11 that season and 17-9 with a loss in the ECACs the next season. The future looked bright. The Bears figured to be atop the NEWMAC the next two years.
They took a bit of a roundabout way to get there. Without Craig Johnson, who left for a year for a humanitarian retreat, the 2006-07 Bears went 2-10 in NEWMAC play. They lost in every which way they could.
But that season is a story with an awesome ending. Thank goodness for the NEWMAC's all-in playoff setup (which doesn't exist anymore). The Bears pulled together and beat the No. 2 seed Babson in the quarterfinals (thanks to Grant Johnson's school-record nine 3s), the No. 6 seed Wheaton in the semis and the No. 1 seed WPI (which entered 22-2) to win the championship.
Sowers hit the winning shot with 25 seconds left in the semis and scored 23 points in a title game that featured 20 lead changes. He also provided some inspiration before the title game, quoting from the movie Little Giants regarding WPI's dominance – "Even if they beat you 99 times out of 100, that still leaves one time."
What some didn't know was that there was doubt that Sowers would play that day, as he was battling a leg injury. But he wasn't going to miss out on the chance to make a legacy.
Blum, who rode the bench as a freshman and sophomore, would make the most of his time too. He scored the championship-winning basket, converting a 3-point play with 43 seconds remaining. "We've never had a kid work harder to get better," associate head coach Bob Bono said at the time.
The game came down to free throws and in the Coast Guard's case, that meant it came down to freshman Eric Hudson, who struggled with free throw shooting during the season. No worries. Hudson made four in a row to clinch the championship. There was a court storm to commemorate the win, which sent the Bears to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1979.
The Bears didn't win at Rhode Island College, which went on to the Elite 8, but they had their fun in a 64-60 loss, The Coast Guard fans serenaded the team with the ole chant when the Bears had a lead midway through the second half.
Flash forward nearly a year to 2007-08 and you'd hear that chant again, this time for a championship celebration. This time, with Craig Johnson back, the Bears finished 7-5 and in third place instead of last and after a comeback win over Wheaton in the NEWMAC semis, they drew WPI for a rematch in the championship game.
Blum was the story early in this one. He made seven shots in a row, including a powerful dunk and his second career 3-pointer. The Bears has plenty left in the tank at game's end. It was 48-48 with 14 minutes left, but a 14-3 run, which included a pair of 3-pointers from Grant Johnson, sent the Bears on their way to an 82-66 victory for their second straight title.
The Bears' first-round draw in the NCAA Tournament was local rival Trinity College in Hartford. The Bears and Bantams last played when The Magnificent 7 were freshman and the Bears got drubbed. As you can see in the picture below, the Bantams' gym was such that on one side, the crowd was practically on top of the players. The atmosphere was loud and hostile.
It was one in which Prebeck thrived. After Trinity took an early 11-point lead, the Bears came back, with Prebeck leading the way. He finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds. The Bears led by halftime, had as much as a 13-point advantage and survived a late game-tying 3-point attempt to win, 71-66. Craig Johnson, hounded by the crowd in the photo above, made the free throws to clinch it.
"We knew they were a good team coming in and we know they are now," said Trinity Head Coach Stan Ogrodnik after the game. "I'd say good enough to go somewhere in this tournament."
Where the Bears went next was North Dartmouth, Mass., home of the Mass-Dartmouth Corsairs, who started the season 20-0 and were one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. This one didn't start well for Coast Guard, which trailed 45-32 with 12:45 left. Truth be told, the Coast Guard broadcaster (me!) sent an instant message to the publisher of D3Hoops.com that said simply "This game is over."
The Bears weren't done. They were just getting started. Coach Barry made a defensive switch, putting Hudson on Mass-Dartmouth's super-fast point guard and the Bears swarmed the passing lanes to get steals and force turnovers. They also got tough with Mass-Dartmouth's All-American forward, causing him to lose his touch.
Coast Guard went on an 18-2 game-ending run over the final 13 minutes in what was the equivalent of a basketball miracle. The winning basket came with just over three minutes left on a follow-dunk by Jevon James, an unrecruited freshman from the Virgin Islands who joined the basketball team because Coast Guard didn't have varsity volleyball. The previously-noted defensive switch paid off as Hudson forced an awkward game-tying shot attempt that missed in the final seconds.
The win was Coach Barry's 400th as a collegiate head coach and also notable because it came without his mustache, which he'd promised he'd shave off if the Bears beat Trinity.
There was more winning to do. The Sweet 16 was held at Ursinus (PA) College, with Coast Guard facing Rochester, a team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation earlier in the season and featured a power forward-center combo that looked like a pair of Division I linebackers. But they had never faced these Bears, nor the Bears fans, who came out in droves for this game.
Rochester's big men dominated the early part of the game, but the Bears controlled the game late. They trailed by five points with 13:15 left, but rallied with a 17-1 run. Sowers scored nine straight points in an 86-second span, making two 3-pointers, sandwiched around an and-1. That was the difference in the game, as Coast Guard won 57-48.
The final game in this glorious run came the next night against the host Ursinus, whose team nickname was also Bears. The atmosphere was akin to being at Duke, with 1,900 people crammed into bleachers and standing behind ropes. Again the Bears trailed and again they came back, with Grant Johnson making eight 3-pointers, including one that gave Coast Guard the lead with a little more than a minute left.
But it was not to be. The homestanding Bears rallied to win in overtime and got to cut down the nets at night's end. The season and the college basketball playing careers for that wonderful recruiting class were over. But what a run it was (if you wish to read an account of the bizarre bus ride back to campus, please read Mike DiMauro's recent reminiscence).
It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since this team made its march through March. Time has passed but the memories still remain very fresh.
They were absolutely magnificent.
The 2008 Coast Guard men's basketball team featured players Steve Blum, Justin Church, Justin Fellers, Trip Fernandes, Brett Huntley, Eric Hudson, Jevon James, Craig Johnson, Grant Johnson, Aaron Jones, Jonathan Lang, Stefan Lewis, Jeff Prebeck, Adam Radtke, Al Sowers, Donatas Siaudinis, team manager Zach Robertson and coaches Pete Barry, Bob Bono, Sam Cheung and Kevin Jaskiewicz.
Mark Simon was the play-by-play voice of the Bears from 2002 to 2018.