Feb. 24, 2012
By Kristen Lange
"I never thought I would play basketball in college," senior basketball player Conner Fenlon said. "I thought I would just go to a small school in Tampa and just be a student."
Four years later, Fenlon now finds the end of his senior year at Siena creeping up on him.
Conner's interest in basketball has been evident all his life. His father, Joe, and his uncles all played basketball. Joe played collegiate basketball at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, and he is now in his twenty-ninth year as a high school basketball coach, a tenure that included a time when his son was on the team.
"It was easier for me than it was for him being the fact that he got more grief than the rest of the kids," the elder Fenlon said. "You need to make sure you don't play favorites, but it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences for me in coaching."
Fenlon started for his father for three years of his high school career, and twice led the city of Tampa in assists. Joe noted that his son was always a team player, and that individual accolades were never priorities.
Joe also sparked his son's interest in Siena. Joe originally met former Siena head coach Fran McCaffery when McCaffery was an assistant coach in Notre Dame, and the two stayed in contact. When Fenlon heard McCaffery and the Saints were coming to Tampa for the NCAA tournament, he insisted McCaffery's team come practice at his gym.
"I had never heard of (Siena) before," Conner said. "After I met Fran, I became interested and visited the school in May. I applied and found out I got in about a week later. It all happened so fast once it started."
This was when Fenlon knew he would become a member of the Siena basketball team. He was excited, but did not know how much of a commitment he was getting himself into.
"I knew the team was good and they saw a lot of wins," he said. "But I didn't think it would be this hectic between the traveling and the schoolwork that all happens outside of practice and games."
Conner also knew that he was entering the team in a unique position. Unlike most of the players, Fenlon came onto the team as a walk-on. With this, he did not see as much playing time and recognition as some of his teammates.
"It's frustrating sometimes," Fenlon said. "You put in the same amount of work that the rest of the guys do but you don't get the glory. Freshman year, I was lucky enough to travel, but sophomore year, there were a lot more people on the team so I didn't always get to. Last year, I kept score at a lot of the games."
Some of his experiences were discouraging, but Fenlon kept his mindset of putting the team before himself.
"He handed it far better than I would have," his father said. "(Conner) understood his role when he went up there as a freshman. His job was to show up every day and practice and try to push the kids through the work. When the team wins, he wins."
Fenlon also experienced a coaching change halfway through his collegiate career, a difficult event because McCaffery was the coach that initially lured him to Siena. Luckily for him, the vacancy was filled by former assistant coach Mitch Buonaguro.
"It was not a huge change having Coach B take the job," Fenlon said. "We were all worried at first when thought we were getting someone completely new. But when we found out it was him, it was OK. We also got to keep a lot of the same plays."
The team has served as a strong support system for Fenlon. He has formed a close relationship with his teammates, and when he becomes discouraged, Fenlon turns to them for encouragement.
"I think the support from the team is what gets me through it," he said. "They've always had my back. I've had my ups and downs, but they kept me in it. The coaches and the fans are also really supportive."
Fenlon has also had the rewarding experience of being part of two historic teams. His first two Siena squads won MAAC titles, and in turn took trips to a pair of NCAA tournaments.
"They were some of the best players I've ever had the opportunity to play with," Conner said. "I learned a lot from them both on and off the court."
This was also a great experience for his father.
"Having the opportunity to go with him to the NCAA tournament was phenomenal. It was great when they beat Ohio State in overtime," the elder Fenlon said. "Having that experience with Conner made it that much more exceptional."
Conner has taken plenty away from his experience as part of the Siena basketball team. He has been pushed by his coaches and teammates throughout all four years, and while he may not spend as much time on the court as some of his teammates, it is about much more than that for him.
"I learned a lot about myself and about other people from being here," Fenlon said. "I learned from the older guys how to become a leader. They helped me learn how to motivate the freshman and different ways to keep the team going."
This team has become a big part of Fenlon's life. The other players are not only his teammates, but some of his closest friends.
"It's interesting to see what happens when you move 1,500 miles away from home and you have no one up there," Joe said. "The team became his family, and to see Conner's genuine excitement on the sidelines when the team is successful is great. He is also one of the first guys off the bench to make sure everyone is involved in the game when they aren't being as successful. Being a teammate is what it's all about."
Fenlon plans to continue his involvement in the game when he graduates from Siena. He aspires to coach at the collegiate level.
"He has learned a lot more about the game from being at Siena," Joe said. "It has done nothing but to affirm the fact that he wants to be a coach. Sometimes when you play you miss the nuances of the game. He has been able to pick the game apart better."
Conner reflects on his experience at Siena as a positive one. Despite the challenges he has faced, the senior feels he has made the best of his time in Loudonville.
"I really enjoyed it," Conner said. "I never thought I'd ever experience some of the things I did here. It's been a lot of fun."
Joe knows his son did his job as a member of the team.
"He needed to come in and embrace the situation that was afforded to him, and he did a great job," he said. "I couldn't be more proud of him."