Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Cassara, Hofstra Host Wagner In Latest Turnaround Attempt

Now in his third year, Mo Cassara is hoping to keep Hofstra competitive despite arrest of four players, and is an easy coach to root for under those circumstances.  (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Three days ago, Hofstra University played under what could be best described as the most adverse of circumstances surrounding the program, struggling their way to a 73-47 loss at the hands of Larry Brown and Southern Methodist with just nine players on their roster, including two walk-ons and a freshman that head coach Mo Cassara had every intention of redshirting.  The highlight of this game, however, came in the postgame press conferences, as both Cassara and SMU head coach Larry Brown offered their insights on Friday's announcement of the arrest of four Hofstra student-athletes on multiple counts of burglary.  "You can't lose four players in one day and expect to have success," Brown said after the game.  "You hate to see kids have to go through something like this."

The words of Hofstra's third-year leader struck a much more personal chord, resonating with the larger than usual media crowd gathered at Hempstead's Mack Center.

"It's been a difficult few days," a visibly shaken Cassara intimated.  "No one feels worse about it than me.  The word 'heartbroken' comes to mind.  I love the opportunity I've been given.  Nobody is more devastated about this than me."

Upon first hearing of the Hofstra situation, I could not help but recount a similar incident that took place at another local school, that being my alma mater of St. John's University. In February of 2004, the Red Storm sunk to an all-time low in the wake of sexual assault charges surrounding three of their student-athletes after a trip to a gentleman's club while on the road in Pittsburgh.  Granted, the Pride did not have to deal with anything on this level, but the losses of student-athletes are comparable.  The one positive to this, if there is one, is that this incident occurred early enough in the season for Hofstra to salvage their season, and Mo Cassara is a man you would feel compelled to root for after just spending five minutes with him.

A young, vibrant and energetic coach in interviews, Cassara is an underrated rising star in a college basketball landscape filled with the likes of Steve Lavin at St. John's and other up-and-coming program leaders like Steve Masiello of Manhattan and Wagner's Bashir Mason, the latter of whom actually goes up against Cassara in just a few hours from Hempstead.  Cassara has also embraced social media to connect with his program's fan base better and more often, as evidenced by his 3,200-plus Twitter followers and 2,700-plus Facebook friends.  The widespread networks he has built on the two platforms are no front either, as he is just as engaging and positive whenever one encounters him; and even Saturday night, where he struggled to speak, was no exception as he vowed to do whatever it took to turn the program around.

"I love Hofstra," Cassara boldly proclaimed.  "I love coming to work every day, I love the support staff, and I love the players."

Hofstra will be looking to avenge a loss to Wagner from last season, and with a struggling LIU Brooklyn team up next, followed by winnable nonconference games against Wright State, Tulane and Florida Atlantic before the Pride's January 7th CAA opener against Georgia State, the potential for the program to distance itself is greater than it ever could be.

It took St. John's a full seven years to restore their program's prestige following their 2004 scandal.  Hopefully, it does not take Hofstra as long.  "Our guys are resilient," Cassara added in his press conference.  "We're going to keep working as hard as we can to keep building on it."

For Cassara and the Pride, it starts again tonight against a Wagner team that is off to a 2-4 start and averaging a mere 56 points per game in a season where the Seahawks were projected to be a Northeast Conference championship contender.

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