Fresh off gold medal-winning experience in World University Games, Brian Giorgis looks for another successful encore to Marist's long-running success story in Hudson Valley. (Photo courtesy of Marist College)
When you've spent eleven seasons quietly building one of the best-kept secrets in local college basketball, and done so with a .776 winning percentage that would make even Rocky Marciano blush, chances are the act becomes hard to follow after a while.
Unless, of course, you're Brian Giorgis, who; in that time has not only built Marist College into a regional powerhouse, but one of the perennial elite mid-major programs in the nation. Then, the season that Giorgis' Red Foxes enjoyed last year; one that saw the pride of Poughkeepsie win its eighth consecutive MAAC championship and ninth in the last ten years, becomes the latest brick in a foundation of consistency that leaves both fans and media clamoring for more.
Earlier this week, we were privileged to have the chance to speak to Giorgis once again, and the man with the gregarious personality and insightful analysis held nothing back; as is usually the case, as we conversed on a number of topics, starting with Marist's nonconference schedule, which is headlined by the Red Foxes' season opener on November 8th, when Kentucky makes the trip from Lexington to McCann Arena.
"What surprised me was that they were willing to come (to New York) and play us," Giorgis said of the Wildcats returning the favor after Marist traveled to the Bluegrass State last December in a season that saw Kentucky reach the Bridgeport Regional final in the NCAA Tournament, where they were defeated by eventual national champion Connecticut. "Sometimes when teams come to New York, they want to play bigger programs, but then you run into people like Matt (Mitchell, Kentucky's coach) who just want to grow the game of women's basketball." The game is also a homecoming of sorts for the Wildcats, as guard Jennifer O'Neill and forward Jelleah Sidney are both New York City natives, and will have the chance to play close to home. In addition to Kentucky, the Red Foxes will take on two other high-major programs outside of MAAC play, first against Ohio State in subregional action before the Hall of Fame Challenge, which culminates at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, where Marist has gone 6-0 over the last two years in winning the last two MAAC championships.
When asked whether or not Springfield gave Marist a de facto homecourt advantage, Giorgis remained pragmatic in his response, hoping that it would be beneficial, but not automatically taking it for granted at the same time.
"Yeah, we've been there before, and knock on wood, we've never lost there," he said of his team's recent dominance in the Bay State. "I'm hoping the six games we've played there give us an advantage, but maybe St. Bonaventure (who Marist faces in Springfield on December 1st) can get the same kind of advantage." The coach, who enters his twelfth season in Poughkeepsie just 23 wins shy of 300 for his career, also praised the competition Marist faces in Columbus before taking on the Bonnies, calling both the Buckeyes and Bowling Green; who Marist faces to open their trip to Ohio on November 22nd, quality teams.
Such quality teams will be an appropriate precursor for what Marist will face once MAAC play begins, as the Red Foxes will face a 20-game schedule now that the conference welcomes Monmouth and Quinnipiac into the fold from the Northeast Conference. "Losing Loyola is tough, but the MAAC is still the MAAC, and it becomes even better when you add a proven winner like Quinnipiac; who brings eight of their top ten players back even though they lost their best player, and a dangerous X-factor like Monmouth," Giorgis said of his new league foes.
The two newcomers will be instant contenders, along with perennial threats Fairfield and Iona; who return a combined nine of ten starters, to the Marist dynasty, which will attempt to carry on despite the losses of first team all-MAAC honoree and tournament MVP Elizabeth Beynnon, as well as Sixth Player of the Year Kristina Danella and five-year sparkplug Kristine Best.
"Losing Kelsey (Beynnon's middle name, which she went by for her first three years before switching to Elizabeth last year) is a lot to lose, but we've got a lot of leadership coming back," Giorgis remarked of this year's incarnation of the Red Foxes. "We've got Maddie Blais, who's looked great in summer workouts, and we're fortunate to have such great leaders coming back. We're a little undersized, we were last in the conference in rebounding, but we were first in a lot of other things." The size issue is one that Giorgis tackled head-on, doing so just days after being dealt what could be a crucial blow when Tori Jarosz was injured in a summer workout.
"We caught a bad break with Tori getting hurt," he said. "She might be out for the year, and last year, she scored 14 points in 18 minutes, and then got hurt in the first game of the season. But we still have Maddie Blais, and we might even play Sydney Coffey at the four to give us a more athletic lineup." Giorgis is also hopeful that 6-5 Delaney Hollenbeck can be 100 percent at some point this season to recoup some of the losses in height to taller, more rebound-oriented opponents.
Finally, our chat with Giorgis would not be complete without a mention of his trip to Russia for the World University Games, where he captured a gold medal as an assistant coach of Team USA. While most would consider that a life-changing moment, the affable Marist coach would not go that far, but did marvel at the journey both on and off the basketball court.
"It was definitely one of the more exciting experiences of my life," he said with an enthusiastic tone in his voice, which was almost certainly accompanied by his trademark wide smile that we were unfortunately unable to see over the phone. "What impressed me most was that these kids, and all the credit for this goes to Sherri Coale, (Oklahoma's head coach, who will lead her Sooners into McCann Arena to face Marist on December 21st) cared more about the name on the front of their jerseys than the back. They were willing to share the basketball, even though they only played together for a short time." And as far as the end result after Team USA's 90-71 victory over host Russia, well, let's just say that the significance of the postgame celebration was not lost on the man whose 728 combined wins at the high school and collegiate levels are now complemented by a gleaming testimonial.
"To get a gold medal and have it placed around your neck, it's unbelievable," Brian Giorgis gushed emphatically.
Just like the team he leads into battle for a twelfth season, looking to extend a run that has already bordered on improbable, but; in essence, has only just begun.