Monday, February 16, 2015

Glenn Braica keeps Terriers under the radar as a fan favorite grows in Brooklyn

At 12-2, with three-game lead in Northeast Conference standings, Glenn Braica is in position to lead St. Francis College to postseason, perhaps to Terriers' first NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy of The Brooklyn Eagle)

To the average pedestrian, St. Francis College is somewhat easy to miss. After all, its single eight-story building in the middle of Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights can easily be mistaken for a corporate office of sorts, or some other structure in which an insititute of higher learning probably would not be someone's first guess.

Once inside its doors, however, not only is the college spirit alive and well, it is enhanced even more by those who support it to a level far beyond what one normally sees on a larger campus. That undying passion reaches even higher levels for St. Francis' athletic programs, each one successful in its own right.

The Terriers are no stranger to the nationwide landscape, with their men's soccer team having won back-to-back Northeast Conference championships, and their men's water polo squad having reached three Final Fours in the last five years. But as is usually the case at a school whose athletic offerings do not offer football, basketball drives the bus, and at 18-9 this season, 12-2 in the NEC, St. Francis Brooklyn; no longer St. Francis (NY) after a rebranding initiative of 2012 that some national scribes have yet to acknowledge, is firmly positioned to do something that has never been accomplished on the corner of Remsen and Court: Win a conference championship and its accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

On the hardwood, the Terriers have had their share of high moments in the past several years, a win over Jim Larranaga's Miami Hurricanes and a near-upset of Syracuse inside the Carrier Dome chief among them. Beyond the wins and losses, though, St. Francis is a team that is easy to root for. Their coach, Glenn Braica, is a native Brooklynite who was an assistant during the Terriers' last flirtation with the glass ceiling, over a decade ago, and a coach whose hard-nosed defensive schemes and aggressive player development skills have turned players like Jalen Cannon and Brent Jones into the class of the NEC the same way his former projects the likes of D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne and Dwight Hardy helped transform St. John's and bring the Red Storm back to the nation's forefront. Braica's staff, which includes his former boss, Ron Ganulin, and one-time Terrier shooting guard Jamaal Womack, promotes his family environment. Finally, the players on the roster are some of the more humble student-athletes in Division I college sports, not taking anything for granted, but at the same time, eager to prove to the world that they belong.

With a team like this, it gets easy to lose oneself in hype, especially when St. Francis has been featured in the New York Times and other national publications that join the ranks of local outfits such as Big Apple Buckets in showering praise upon the Terriers. It takes skill and a patient hand to keep a group of fourteen young men from getting caught up in their accolades, and that is where Braica really earns his stripes as one of the more underrated captains of the basketball ships in the area.

"They've been good about it," he said of his players' ability to avoid falling prey to the increased quantity of eyeballs following St. Francis' victory over local foe Wagner Thursday evening, an 83-66 pasting of the Seahawks marked by Jalen Cannon's 26 points and 12 rebounds as he furthers his push to become the Terriers' all-time leading scorer, a summit from which he stands 72 markers behind current leader Ricky Cadell in a season where Cannon has already etched his name into the conference annals by becoming the NEC's all-time leading rebounder. "We're not caught up in anything," Braica continued. "All we're worried about is shootaround tomorrow, you know, whatever practice we have. We just go one day at a time. You can't get ahead of yourself."

It might be a cliched approach, but Braica, as he learned from Norm Roberts during six years as his top deputy while the Red Storm began their climb from a morass former coach Mike Jarvis plunged the program head-first into, has figured out that slow and steady ultimately does win the race.

"Yeah, I know some people are excited," he admitted with regard toward the ever-growing hope and visions of what may lie ahead, "but we've got a long way to go. We're not paying any attention to it, and it's not for lack of gratitude. It's for, I know the kind of trap you can fall into if you start thinking about stuff like that."

No truer words could have been spoken, as Braica is 0-4 in Northeast Conference tournament games since returning to Remsen Street in 2010. That is not to say he or his players were distracted in the moment of truth, but rather, victims to the unpredictable nature of postseason play. Speaking of postseason play, victories against Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Francis University this week will clinch a regular season NEC title for the Terriers, with its accompanying reward being a guaranteed berth in the National Invitation Tournament that St. Francis can fall back on should they not win their conference tournament. But, as you may expect, the coach of what could be the latest Cinderella story in a city that always embraces the underdog, is looking solely to Thursday night against Greg Herenda and Fairleigh Dickinson, a team whose 12-game losing streak began last month at the hands of the Terriers.

"We've got to crank it up every day and be focused and ready to play," Braica assessed, "and that's all we're worried about."

With just a few more efforts like those that have propelled the Terriers to wins in six consecutive games and 15 of their last 17, St. Francis College; which markets itself as the small college of big dreams, just might become the small college in the Big Dance.

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