Over the holiday semester break (December 28) I walked over to Central Connecticut State University’s Detrick gymnasium from my Belvidere home to watch the Central men play Vermont in a non-conference game. The team had a sub .500 record at the time and I was amazed to count only seven players in uniform. I wondered how a basketball team so depleted would survive the season in the Northeast Conference.
The undermanned Blue Devils showed promise early in the game against their America East opponent. They pushed the ball hard off missed shots; their team play, sure-handed passing and constant team motion evoking my memories of the old and great Celtics of another era. But they were shorthanded even more than usual that night and fell to Vermont and its 15-man roster, 55-48. Little did I know that the flashes of good play I saw in a loss, dropping Central to 3-9, would be a harbinger of things to come.
On March 7, the Central men gained their third trip to the NCAA tournament since 2000. Overcoming a second half deficit of 10 points, the Blue Devils defeated Sacred Heart University in dramatic fashion. Guard Xavier Mojica (Auburn, MA, Auburn HS),the league MVP, confidently drilled a a three pointer and Forward Jemino Sobers (Scarborough, Ontario, Mother Teresa) delivered a baseline jumper to catch and pass Sacred Heart as the clock wound down for victory.
CCSU’s journey toward March Madness is an improbable story of determination by a team frequently undermanned and often smaller in size than many of their opponents; a team that played through injuries and pain. From that 3-9 start in December, they finished the regular season 22-11 overall and 16-2 in their conference.
In many ways this relentless squad is a reflection of their coach, Howie Dickenman. Dickenman’s basketball resume begins as a standout player for CCSU, coming to the New Britain School from Norwich Free Academy where he was coached by his father. In workmanlike fashion, he was a New Britain High assistant and gradually earned his way up the coaching ladder. There was two years as coach of Greater Hartford Community College (now Capital Community College). Assistant’s jobs would follow at CCSU under longtime coach Bill Detrick and Canisius College. For 10 years Dickenman was an assistant and top recruiter at the University of Connecticut helping to build the Huskies to national prominence with Jim Calhoun.
Eleven years ago Dickenman returned to his basketball home where he has led his team to a third trip to the Division I “dance”. Dickenman’s passion can’t be missed at any game. He relentlessly paces the sideline and his shouts can be heard across the gym. His raspy voice shows that the season takes a heavy toll on his vocal chords. The yells rarely if ever are directed at referees over a bad call. He probably couldn’t stand being thrown out of a game and miss a minute of the action. Instead, his court side manner exhorts his players to excel and they usually respond to their tough but caring coach.
The Blue Devils have earned their spot in the NCAA tournament through perseverance and hard work and what one commentator called their “old school coach.”
They have gained the admiration of the community and state where they play. Now, it’s on to face a Division I elite team in the first round in the familiar role of the out sized and undermanned upstart. Whoever they play, however, had better be ready for this hardscrabble and unselfish group from New Britain, Connecticut.