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Thursday, October 11, 2007

MU men's hoops - Climbing "The Ladder.'' - Steve Edelson's Thursday column in the Press

Steve Edelson Column

WEST LONG BRANCH - The horn blast is startling as it slices through an empty
Boylan Gym, the 42-year-old facility already struggling to keep out the
humidity of an Indian summer morning. It's quickly replaced by the screech of
sneakers on hardwood as coach Dave Calloway stands fidgeting, a store-bought
coffee in hand and assistant Chris Kenny at his side.


While the Monmouth University men's basketball team goes baseline-to-baseline
in a race against the scoreboard clock, above them hang banners representing
all 11 Northeast Conference teams, very few of whom the Hawks could beat by the
end of a 2006-07 season in which they were the favorites to go dancing.


And so they run ""the ladder,'' starting at 7 a.m., in a rite that began last
spring as both a reminder of the past and a foundation for what could be.


""Part of it's to let everyone know that what happened last year was
unacceptable,'' said Calloway, whose 10th season begins when practice opens on
Saturday.

""We're also very young, so we're going to have to spend a lot of time
teaching. And the teaching always takes longer than you think it will. So we
won't have to spend quite as much time on conditioning.''


To sophomore guard Jhamar Youngblood, these crack-of-dawn sessions seem
downright personal.


He was on this same court nearly eight months earlier when, with an NEC
Tournament bid dangling before them, Sacred Heart outscored the Hawks 54-36 in
the second half to offset Youngblood's 31-point effort. He managed only six
points a few nights later in Loretto, Pa., where a 46-point second half
outburst by St. Francis, combined with a St. Francis (N.Y) win over FDU,
finally put them out of their misery.


""We didn't have the toughness we needed, mentally or physically, to come
through and win the games we needed to late last season,'' said Youngblood, who
looks visibly stronger than he did during his NEC Freshman of the Year campaign.
""This is what we need. In the beginning when we started running, I really
didn't want to do it. No one did. But then you start seeing how it helps you
and you start to understand. Maybe we'll have the toughness to win important
gamm!on the road.''


The program Calloway has guided to the NCAA Tournament three times, finds
itself in the role of a decided underdog. They were supposed to be good last
season but it didn't work out. Now, with just three experienced returnees,
they're a month away from lining up against Seton Hall in the new Newark Arena,
which is five days before facing Notre Dame at the University of Virgin Islands
Paradise Jam.


""Our season started on the bus ride home from St. Francis last February,''
Calloway said. ""Just like the year before it started coming home from our game
against Villanova.''


Gone is the physical play of Marques Alston, the shooting of Dejan Delic and
the size of John Bunch, while guard Mike Shipman transferred out. Then again,
all that equaled was a 12-18 record last season.


And that's what all this running is really about.


This team isn't as talented as last year's. They certainly don't have as much
experience. But what that particular group of Hawks lacked were intangibles
like chemistry, leadership and an overall willingness to commit to the system.


""I know they were disappointed last season, and everyone's working hard to
turn that around,'' said freshman point guard James Hett. ""I really didn't
know what to expect coming in, but I think the running we do in the morning
helps us as a team.''


The ladder involves runs of varying lengths up and down the court, with
corresponding rest periods in between. It's a drill Calloway used early in his
tenure, but got away from it as the program progressed, producing six straight
winning seasons and a pair of regular season NEC crowns.


On this day, only half of the Hawks' 12-man roster is actually running, with
the other half, nursing nagging injuries, stretching on mats courtside while
providing encouragement. When it ends after about 30 minutes, the injured
players head for the pool to get their exercise.


If all this helps win a few games in the final minutes, so be it. But just as
important is the camaraderie and trust, both in each other and the coaching
staff, these grueling sessions help build. You see, talent's a luxury at
Monmouth. The concept of team, however, is an outright necessity.


Note to all - coming on our blog Thursday and Friday. MU women's and men's hoops practice preview stories (which will run in the Press Friday and Saturday). Plus on Friday the MU football preview for Wagner game (for Saturday Press).

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