By Matt Noonan
Anna Maria’s men’s basketball team is currently riding a nine-game winning streak, which started with a victory on the road against Mount Ida College. The AMCATs are currently second in the GNAC (Great Northeast Athletic Conference) and have won 10 of their 12 conference tilts this season.
On Thursday, Noontime Sports caught up with the seven-year head coach Shawn Conrad to talk about the team’s recent winning streak, as well as the AMCATs current campaign. Below is the first of a few installments from our conversation with the coach.
On the season thus far: “ (Prior to our first game), we experimented a little bit, we have some veteran kids, we struggled to score points last year, so we tried to open it up a little bit and try a little bit of a different offense, (and) a different kind of method. And we spent a lot of time in the preseason going over – it sounds easy to let’s not call plays and let’s just try to read each other and let’s open up the floor (and execute) the old drive and kick stuff.
“We’ve predominantly been an inside-outside team, and we spent a lot of time going over offensive things and it really didn’t click in the early part of the first semester we tried to tweak it and fix it and go with it, and I think subliminally the message that went along with that was that we were going to be an offensive team and not a defensive team. It (wasn’t) until about halfway through the first semester that we said we’ve got to get back to what we’ve always been and we’re a defense first, inside-outside team, and we kind of scrapped it, although it’s come in handy in a couple of games where we were kind of stagnant offensively.
“We’ve had to go back to let’s just open it up and play a little bit, so the evolution of a season is an amazing thing and I think our first semester woes were a product of really three things: trying to install a new offense, forgetting that we were spending so much time on offense that I think we forgot to re-instill in (our team) that we are still a defensive team first, and then the last thing we had a good run at the end of last year to get to the conference finals. We were ranked three in our league (during the preseason) and we tried to warn them daily and I think our guys felt a sense of entitlement.
“We’re good, but we play extremely hard when we defend in the half court and when we (pass the ball) inside. I think the combo of those three things really held us back a little bit in the first semester, not that we didn’t deserve to be 3-7 anyways because we played pretty good teams, pretty good schedule. (However), we like to challenge the team in the first semester, we know that we’ll never ever get an at-large bid (for the NCAA Div. III tournament) even if we go 25-0, it would still be very difficult for us, unless we win the conference tournament, so we played Bridgewater, Clark and Amherst, and went down to the Wesleyan tournament, so I think the fact that we like to think we play a tough non-conference schedule and we didn’t have an identity in the first semester, and I think that has changed. I think our guys really understand our identity as they’ve bought into it, and it has been a pretty good run right here, even though it hasn’t been smooth, but it’s been a lot of work and we’ve been able to come out on the plus side more often than not as of lately.”
On Playing Competitive Non-Conference Foes: “These are teams that have been to the NCAA tournament, these are teams that play in leagues that are held to at maybe higher regards across the board, and this is a great measuring stick for us to see where we stand. We want to be able to get to (that) level, so to play them we can obviously learn from them and understand what it takes to get to that level.
“I really think we can compete with these schools, but it is nice to be able to compete against the schools that are held at maybe higher regard because of the leagues that they’re in.”
On The Start Of The Current Winning Streak: “I was probably upset as probably as I have been and confused as I have been since I have been here (because) I thought we had something here (once the season started), but I knew we had a good group of players and good group of guys, but it just wasn’t clicking. Whether it is tinkering around with the offense in the first semester or what have you, and there were a lot of little things that just weren’t in the right place and I looked to that after (the) Fitchburg (game where) we bottled out. I was extremely disappointed and confused after that game, but we actually had three separate practice sessions the next day and we did a lot of soul searching. We did a film session; a practice session and we did a lecture section.
“(During that day) I tried to honestly as possible tell them what I thought was going on, how we have to change things and bizarrely we go down to Mount Ida (the following day) to begin our conference schedule for the rest of the route here and I thought the message was sent loud and clear on Friday, but apparently it wasn’t because we were really floundering. There was a sequence with probably five minutes to go in the first half where I think we scored and they came down within five to 10 seconds they made like two passes, beat us down the floor and dunked it.
“That’s probably the moment that our season changed. I can probably point to that because I had one of my moments and called a timeout and got all five guys out and just grabbed the first five guys I could put my hands on and put them in. And when they went out on the floor, the five that came out had that look like, ‘Hey Coach, what are you doing it?’ And I was like, ‘ We just played 10 games, we’ve lost seven of them, we’re down by eight with five minutes to go in the first half, so you tell me why you should be playing?’ (Apparently) I was the one making the mistake because (my players didn’t understand the message during that timeout). The five guys that went in, again, not as talented as the five guys we took out, but they just played with just incredible energy and gave us everything that we had been looking for even though we didn’t have as talented a group out there, but they cut into the lead, we made up the difference, and tied it up at the half.
“You could say we had a spirited halftime session, and basically the message was that no one is in expendable here. If you’re not going to play hard than we’ve got nothing to hang our hat on. We came out with great energy in the second half, got a double-digit lead right away, we didn’t put them away, however, they came back and had to hang on at the end, but that was the beginning (of our turnaround and current winning streak).
“Then we came home and had that four overtime game against Lasell that we could have lost, and we followed that with a trip to Norwich and that was an overtime game that we could have or should have lost as well, so we kind of got lucky, but I think they got a little bit excited about themselves and the games we had played and everyone’s talking about the overtime games and it kind of went from there.
“We had a tough (game) against Rivier (University), but I think the second big moment was going up to St. Joe’s (of Maine) and beating them there. It was kind of a coast to coast game (because) it’s a long trip and (they’re a) very established basketball program with a good tradition, and they were (slated second in the preseason poll), so our guys knew how big of a game that was and we were able to go up there on the road and win.
“Everything started to fall into place (after that St. Joe’s game), and again it was more a product of our defense and an understanding that we’re going to play with incredible intensity defensively, we’re going to get the ball inside and that’s how we’re going to operate.
“We clearly have an identity now and I think it has started to evolve from the second half of the Mount Ida game.
“The first thing first is that we are going to play with an incredible amount of energy and sometimes I guess human nature takes over, and why we felt we could pick our spots and get away with it is beyond me, but I think the message hit them.”