Monday, March 2, 2015

Bond between Masiello and his players stronger than ever as Manhattan readies for MAAC title defense

One year after winning MAAC championship, Steve Masiello and his Manhattan players are drawn even closer together as Jaspers prepare to defend their conference crown this weekend in Albany. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Fuhrmann of the Manhattan College Quadrangle)

At this time twelve months ago, Manhattan College was in the process of knocking down the final hurdle on their road to the NCAA Tournament, winning the program's first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship since 2004. The Jaspers had become the media darling of the metropolitan area after becoming New York's sole representative in the field of 68, and the blue-collar spirit of head coach Steve Masiello and his players made Manhattan easy to root for, regardless of the underdog status they held.

But with great highs come great adversity, which Masiello himself stated in the midst of his team's road to destiny always reveals who a person is and what they are made of. "When you could survive when you're supposed to go down," the coach said after a win over Marist in January of last season, "you're going to live a long time."

To say Manhattan has been through adversity this season would be a major understatement. From the various injuries that befell the Jaspers during a 2-7 start against a rigorous nonconference schedule, to what the team has experienced off the court, both individually and as a group, the program has gone through the emotional gauntlet several times over. Normally, such a roller coaster would be enough to weaken a mere mortal. Yet, here are the Jaspers, having taken their lumps through a 16-13 regular season, battle-hardened, but not fractured as they make the trip up Interstate 87 to the Times Union Center in Albany to defend their MAAC title, a band of brothers that has grieved and coped together.

"I think our brotherhood makes us even better players," junior forward Ashton Pankey said in the wake of Manhattan's emotionally charged victory over Quinnipiac to close out the regular season, winning the final home game of the season on senior day at Draddy Gymnasium. "We're all so close, you know, we go through struggles together and we fight together."

That brotherhood, a relationship where Masiello is equal parts hard-working coach and caring older brother of sorts, a demeanor that anyone who spends enough time around the team can attest to, contributed to the "T.O.E.," or "team over everything" rally cry that Manhattan carried with them into the NCAA Tournament, and even into a tumultuous offseason as well.

"I can't put it into words," an emotional Masiello said when asked just how much his senior class meant not only to the program, but to him personally. "With everything I've been through, from my degree situation, these guys are the reason I'm back. They never left my side."

"It's tough to explain," he continued, "because the highs are easy. But when you've got guys like this during the lows, it's special. They believed in me when no one else did."

Ask any one of his players why they stood by their embattled coach, and every one would look their interrogator square in the eyes and state without equivocation that Masiello would do the same for them. Far too often in sports, the relationships and team dynamics between player and coach can be taken for granted, especially when media criticism and the win-now expectations of fan bases come into play. But in the Jaspers, there is a mutual admiration between Masiello and his players to where each would run through a brick wall for the other, a staunch testament to the team-oriented mindset and close-knit nature of a group that has had their backs against the wall, and embraces whatever challenges are laid out in front of them, both on and off the court, before, during and after the next step in their championship defense begins Saturday night.

"We've all been through it," senior forward Emmy Andujar, the Jaspers' charismatic leading scorer, admitted. "It's just crazy, but we just stuck together and that's what made us stronger. That's what really made us stronger."

"Things like that just bring us closer together," said senior point guard RaShawn Stores. "A lot of you don't see the shirts we have. It's always something. Last year, we had T.O.E., team over everything. This year, it's '22 Strong.' We're all we've got. We all know that at the end of the day, when we get on that bus, it's all of us on that bus, 22 strong. When one man goes down, we never leave a soldier behind. That's the key thing."

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