Sunday, March 5, 2017

Fairfield must now regroup after disappointing end to season

Sydney Johnson and Fairfield went from potential semifinal matchup with Monmouth to reassessing where they go next after Stags were defeated by Siena in MAAC tournament quarterfinals. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

ALBANY, NY -- In a reminder of how bright he and those around his program continue to view their future, Sydney Johnson was admittedly at a loss for words in describing the next step for Fairfield.

"I didn't think our season was going to end," the Stags' head coach conceded shortly after a 78-66 loss to Siena in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. "It's really not something we were prepared to talk about tonight. That's no disrespect to Siena, but we were hoping on getting back to the hotel and working on our game plan for tomorrow. We obviously have to flip that switch, and we'll get to that soon enough."

At 16-14 on the year, Fairfield is certainly worthy of a postseason invitation should they be so fortunate enough to receive one; but if not, the Stags go into what will be Johnson's seventh season at the helm returning the majority of this year's roster, losing only fifth-year senior and longtime warrior Amadou Sidibe, who leaves quite the legacy in the Nutmeg State.

"We were talking about it in the locker room, just how we fought every single game," Sidibe reflected when putting the final year of a valiant career into perspective. "That's one thing I'll cherish in my career, the fighting mentality. We never gave up on each other, and that's one thing I'll use in my life moving forward."

"One of the best parts of coaching is getting to know these young men, and some of them become like sons to you," an emotional Johnson opined. "Amadou is that. We've seen a lot together and there's been ups and downs, but I've seen him grow as a man and as a leader. He's somebody who just makes me smile and appreciate his toughness."

"He's got a huge heart. To put everything that he's meant to me and my family into words right now is really hard, but I would say I love him like a son, and that's some of the best payoff you could get as a coach."

Regardless, the Stags have several building blocks in which to place their trust for the 2017-18 campaign, primarily soon-to-be-senior guard Tyler Nelson, a first team All-MAAC selection who very well could be the conference's Preseason Player of the Year by the time the annual coaches' poll and preliminary recognitions are unveiled in October.

"The kid's amazing," said Johnson of Nelson. "He's really talented, but he's just gotten tougher. He faces a lot from his coach and from defenses, and he just does a lot of the big things, the little things. I admire how he's grown up. There are bigger and brighter things for him leading this team."

Getting back to wrapping up this season, Johnson brought things full circle by making a calm and humble case for his team to continue on, be it in either the College Basketball Invitational or Tournament.

"I hope we're not done playing this year," he said, although the prospect of postseason play was clearly not the first thing on his mind at the moment. "I've got the best boss in America (athletic director Gene Doris). We'll sit and talk. I know we're worthy, and we'll see if we get the invite."

But whether the road ended Saturday night or not, the mistakes will be fixed, and the future remains; in the coach's own words, bright.

"We're not done yet," the ever-hopeful Johnson cautioned. "We're certainly not done as a program, and I think we'll learn from it."

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