BY STEPHEN CHOTT
As students packed into Maggs Physical Activities Center Wednesday night, excitement was in the air surrounding the Salisbury University basketball teams. The first Salisbury Midnight Madness showed the spirit of the student body and the preparation put in by both basketball teams.
“It’s really exciting,” women’s head coach Kelly Lewandowski said. “It’s the first year we’ve done this so to have the support means a lot. Coming off double CAC championships from both programs definitely fuels the excitement and gets the team excited and ready to work for their fans.”
The women’s team had one of its best seasons in school history in 2014, posting a 28-3 record and making it all the way to the sectional finals of the NCAA tournament. The men’s team had similar success, going 21-8 and making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Although both programs had great years, there has been a lot of turnover. Six members from the women’s squad graduated last spring, and the men’s team hired new head coach Andy Sachs, although he is familiar with the program as an alumnus and former assistant coach from 1987-1992.
Sachs was front and center as the Midnight Madness festivities started, helping pick the raffle for students to participate in a contest of “knockout” and then “hot shot.”
When the contests concluded, it was time for the mixed scrimmage with players from both teams joining together in maroon and white. The Maroon team ended up winning 24-20, but neither team seemed concerned about the results. The scrimmage was a showcase of dribbling skills, three-point shots and dunk attempts.
The event, which is commonly displayed by many Division I basketball teams, was brought to fruition with the help of many players including senior guard Justin May.
May, who transferred to Salisbury last fall, said the idea came to him from his time playing at Delaware State.
“We have five seniors on the team now who haven’t had the Midnight Madness experience, so it was something I wanted them to see,” May said.
He also added that the turnout was no surprise to him and could have been even better if they had more time to promote the event, which was held up by the approval process.
With the loss of so many players, the women’s squad have been given the label of a team rebuilding. The idea of rebuilding is something that junior guard Lauren Rothfeld hopes the team will use as motivation.
“A lot of people are saying this is a rebuilding year for us. Our goal is just to pick up where we left off last year,” Rothfeld said.
That sentiment was backed up by Lewandowski, who admits that it will be a hard adjustment with the seniors leaving, but says that the taste of success coming off of their playoff run last season should motivate them to repeat and to go even further.
As a team, Rothfeld admits that there has been a focus on improving the defense.
“Defense wins championships,” she said. “We’ve had a focus on defense and getting back to the basics.”
The men’s team returns more starters, but they’ve already been dealt a huge blow with the announcement that one of their leading scorers from last season, forward Wyatt Smith, will be out for the entire season after getting shoulder surgery on Friday.
Outside of Smith, the biggest adjustment for Sachs so far has been getting to know his new team.
“I started to get to know the players the first day I got the job. Seeing them during the summer and getting to know them a bit in the fall. It’s been great and there’s a great culture and we’re just looking to build on that,” Sachs said.
After leaving Salisbury in 1992, Sachs has had several different coaching jobs including his most recent six year stint as head basketball and tennis coach at Bethany College.
While at Bethany, Sachs compiled a record of 117-49 with the team qualifying for the NCAA tournament in 2011 and 2012. When former head coach Josh Merkel left this offseason for Randolph-Macon, Sachs jumped at the opportunity to return to Salisbury.
“It’s the best job in the country,” Sachs said. “None of us do it for the money. So in my opinion what I’m selling is the best experience in terms of academics, cost, social and athletics in the country.”
He added that the excitement around the team is something that he wants to keep going as he takes over.
“When I left here in 1992 you couldn’t find a place in this gym 30 minutes before tip-off,” Sachs said. “It got to that point at the end of last year and we just want to build off of that success.”
Winning a national championship would keep that excitement around the program, and that’s exactly what both Sachs and May said was their number one goal for the upcoming year.
“We want a national championship,” said May. “Nothing else. That’s our one goal”
Whether the midnight madness event becomes an annual event remains to be seen, but for this year it gave students something to be excited about. Salisbury coaches and players hope it is the start to something special.