March 20, 2001

Catholic fans rally around champions


WASHINGTON (AP), MARCH 20 - Georgetown or Maryland?

       Students rallying by the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception don't have to choose between the two neighboring colleges facing off in the NCAA tournament.

       Catholic University celebrated the first national championship in a team sport in school history Tuesday with black and red balloons, prayers, cheerleaders' chants and hundreds of students who see Thursday's Hoyas-Terps NCAA tournament game as a mere afterthought.

       "We already have our national championship," said C.J. Gilbert, a sophomore from Buffalo. "Let those guys duke it out. We're going to be the only ones in town left with a national championship after Duke finishes with them anyway."

       The Cardinals defeated William Paterson 76-62 in Salem, Va., on Saturday night to win the men's Division III basketball crown for the first time in the program's 90-year history.

       "It was a St. Patrick's Day we shall never forget!" proclaimed Rev. David M. O'Connell, the president of the school in Washington.

       The school, which has about 2,400 undergraduates, took pride in the nature of a title won without the big money and glitz associated with Division I athletics. Players are non-scholarship, none have NBA ambitions, and their graduation rate has been 100 percent during coach Michael Lonergan's nine years at the school.

       "We definitely win the right way," Lonergan said.

       Admission to Catholic games is free, and attendance topped out around 1,500 toward the end of the season. About 400 fans made the trip to Salem for the Final Four, and about 100 were waiting when the team bus returned to campus Sunday.

       "We're the best-kept secret in town," said Gilbert, who also serves as the public address announcer for home games.

       Lonergan, who withdrew as a candidate for the Colgate opening two years ago, set the school record for victories with his 177th win in the title game. The five seniors on the team played in the final 16 four straight years and will leave with exactly 100 victories.

       Officials were quick to point out that Catholic actually won two national championships over the weekend: The debate team took top honors at the American Debate Association tournament in Clarion, Pa.

       But it was basketball that brought the school together Tuesday. Not since the Patrick Ewing era at Georgetown has an NCAA trophy and a cut-down net been hoisted by a coach before cheering fans in the nation's capital.

       "It has really united the student body," said junior Matt Letourneau, who made the trip to Salem for the championship game. "We're the first championship team since 1984 in D.C."