July 31, 2001
A winning season. Gina Castelli has had many in her 11 years as mentor of the Saints--seven to be exact. Her 179 wins are the most be any coach in the history of Siena women's basketball. For her efforts, she has been named MAAC Coach of the Year four times and was twice selected New York State Division I Coach of the Year, however, something was missing. The coveted MAAC Tournament Championship, which carried with it an automatic berth to college basketball's Mecca--the NCAA Tournament--had eluded Castelli like Ahab's white whale. For 10 years the exasperating work and unparalleled commitment of Castelli, her staff and her student-athletes would rise to a crescendo as March approached and then abruptly, and at times tragically, come to an end.
One shining moment
Fairfield's Schrene Isidora reeled in a half-court pass and drove toward the basket with her team trailing by two points. With each step, precious time ticked off the clock--time that counted down all the Saints had worked for--time that seemed like an eternity. Isidora pulled up from 22-feet, three-point range. Like an evil villain who had been tracking the Saints MAAC Tournament horrors for the past decade, she knew the plot, she knew how this was supposed to end. The fans at the HSBC Arena--mostly relatives of Castelli, a Buffalo native--held their collective breaths. They had seen this so many times, and had grown to fear the outcome. Too often, the Saints seemed so prepared and so ready to make the next step, but each time had come up just short. This time would be different.
Isidora's jumper hit the front iron and harmlessly fell to the court.
The eruption of emotion that occurred in the subsequent moments was a consequence of 11 years of bottled up dreams and hard work. Tears streamed down Castelli's face as her Saints swarmed the floor meeting in an endless embrace at midcourt. They had done it! Finally, the work had paid off--Siena was headed to the NCAA's.
At Siena, the month of October always brings with it a sense of optimism and anticipation as basketball season is just around the corner. The 2000-2001 edition of the Siena women's basketball team went through the motions of the month's annual rituals--first day of practice, media day, etc.--in much the same manor as they always had. The team, like their mentor, has always been quietly confident and outwardly modest. This year, however, there was a change. At first it was hard to detect even among those closest to the program, and to women's basketball fans in the Capital Region it wouldn't become noticeable until the Ides of March rolled in. Those of us who have the privilege of working with Castelli on a daily basis, however, saw something different.
The pressures of coaching can be overwhelming. When much is expected, much more effort and commitment is required. Much has always been expected of Castelli's Saints, as a result of their unparalleled success. This coupled with the MAAC Tournament disappointments seemed to burden Castelli the last few years. As the sun dawned on the 2000-2001 season, however, a different side of the Coach emerged. Whether it stemmed from an inner knowledge of what this team could accomplish, or a growing comfort level with her position and surroundings is unclear. But make no mistake--Gina Castelli was more relaxed. It was this relaxed nature that may have made the biggest difference in Siena's season.
"I have noticed a difference in her,'' said senior Sacha Baker, who has seen ups (winning the MAAC) and downs (losing the MAAC final one year and going 10-18 the next). "I don't know if she was more confident in the team, but she was definitely more at ease because she knew we had the same goals she does.''
"My freshman year, there was so much pressure to win,'' said junior Chrissy Loeliger, referring to the 1998-99 season, when the Saints lost the MAAC final to St. Peter's. "Last year, we just weren't ready for the tournament. This year, she was a little less uptight. She knew that if we did what she asked of us, we'd win the championship.''
From the start of the season, there were indications that this team could be special. In the recent past, the Saints have struggled out of the gate, as Castelli always schedules a rigorous non-conference slate made up of regional powers to prepare for the challenging MAAC season. Siena sent an early message to the rest of the women's college basketball world, however, blowing out Dartmouth and Holy Cross--each of which had won its league the previous season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament--in its first two games.
With senior leaders Audra Spremullo and Baker leading the way, the Saints began the conference season 5-0 heading into an early season showdown at conference favorite Fairfield. The Stags were the overwhelming pick of all familiar with the MAAC to take home the championship, and on this night in mid-January, were 10 points better than Siena.
In the next two months, the Saints would not lose a game, stringing together the sixth longest winning streak in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. Their transformation into one of the top-50 teams in the nation was in no small part due to the efforts of two players.
The Secret to Siena's Success
In the summer of 1998, Assistant Coach Matt Luneau traveled to Turkey for the European Junior Championships--it would turn out to be the most profitable recruiting trip in school history. At the games, he saw Latvian's Gunta Basko and Liene Jansone play for the first time and new immediately the impact they could have at Siena.
Luneau, a former assistant coach at The College of Saint Rose, had developed ties to Latvia by coaching three of its countrywomen -- Ilze Auzina, Evija Azace and Krista Kandere -- at Saint Rose. Auzina later became his wife.
Basko had heard of Auzina, and still calls the former Saint Rose star "a great player.'' Auzina had asked one of the Latvian national coaches if any players had the interest -- and necessary skill level -- to play college basketball in the United States, and that coach steered Auzina toward Basko. It was a perfect fit.
Two years later, the tandem would steer Siena to its first NCAA Tournament appearance. "When I was in Latvia I heard of the NCAA Tournament, but I didn't know it's such a big deal,'' Basko said. "Right now, I know what a big deal it is. My attitude toward it is totally changed.''
Basko helped change a lot of attitudes this season, becoming the first sophomore in conference history to garner MAAC Player of the Year honors. Her countrymate didn't fare too badly either. In just her first season, Jansone was honored as the MAAC Rookie of the Year after winning the weekly conference honor an unprecedented five-straight times to close out the season. She topped that off by being selected MAAC Tournament MVP after turning in the Saints' single-best performance of the season in the Championship game against Fairfield.
Time to Dance
It was this combination of talent, leadership and composure that allowed the Saints to break through in Buffalo. When Siena and Fairfield met in the Championship game that everyone had hoped to see, it was evident that all in attendance were not just watching the two best teams in the MAAC, but two of the top programs in the country. Despite the loss, Fairfield received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first team from the MAAC in over a decade to accomplish that feat.
As for the game, it was everything one could hope for from an epic title match between two championship-caliber teams. The Saints erased a seven-point halftime deficit and rode the heroic efforts of Jansone--who at one point in the second half had outscored the entire Fairfield team 18-15--to the dramatic win.
A winning season, indeed. But moreover, a tale of perseverance, self-confidence and trust. Characteristics we hear overused so frequently in athletics these days. But not on this day. Under the direction of Castelli, the Siena women's basketball team demonstrated what being a winner is all about--or at least what it is supposed to be about.
Two weeks following the championship victory, the Saints NCAA vision became a reality in Nashville, Tenn. in a first-round match with the University of Colorado of the Big 12 Conference. Siena held its own for the better part of the first half, before succumbing to a better team. But that wasn't an acceptable answer for Castelli or her Saints. The disappointed squad met in the lockerroom in the moments following the game, and realized the bar had been raised--it was time to form new aspirations. Sport is about challenge, and a new gauntlet had been thrown the Saints way. The goal will no longer just be to win the MAAC and make it to the NCAA--but to get there and win.
"I have no doubt they will be back here next year," said Baker a graduating senior--"and they will be a better team--the program is on the rise and everybody here will no longer be content with just making it."