BY CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Salisbury players go for a block against Southern Virginia last season. Feb. 17. Emma Reider photo
In the last several seasons, success has become an expectation for the Salisbury University men’s basketball team, but it has not always been that way.
Two SU alumni changed the narrative of the program to a more consistently successful one, a story that breathed success and competition for conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances.
Before the 2012-13 season, the Sea Gulls saw only four winning seasons out of the previous 14 campaigns. The stretch dated back to the program’s last deep NCAA tournament run as quarterfinalists under historic head coach Ward Lambert.
The glory days of Lambert were what Sea Gull basketball fans looked back to in order to support the Salisbury program’s history. Several feats were added to the list once alumni Josh Merkel and Andrew Sachs came back to their old stomping grounds.
Now the head coach at Randolph-Macon College, Merkel led his alma mater to a 66-41 record over his four seasons. The 2012-13 squad’s 19-8 overall record ended a five-consecutive losing season streak prior to that year.
With no hardware coming in his first three seasons at the helm, his tenure culminated in a CAC championship and a trip to the NCAA Second Round in the 2014-15 season. It was Salisbury’s first time back at the “big dance” since the 1996-97 season under Lambert.
Following the season, it was announced that Merkel would be leaving the program, heading south for his current position. After a search to fill the spot, SU Athletics turned to another former Sea Gull who had been continuing to establish himself at Bethany College (W. Va.) in the previous seasons.
Quickly winning over Merkel’s former star players and recruits while infusing some of his own, Sachs continued the success that the previous head coach had begun.
In his first two campaigns at the helm, Salisbury had two 20-plus win seasons, each ending in an NCAA tournament appearance and as conference runner-up. The combined three-year stretch of Merkel and Sachs’ trips to the NCAA tournament was a program record for consecutive seasons making the tournament.
While Salisbury did not make the NCAA tournament last season, the team still advanced to the CAC semifinals and posted an 18-9 overall mark while finishing third in the conference, still a much higher mark than the stretch before these two head coaches.
Currently, the combined tenures of Merkel and Sachs might be the most successful and consistent stretch in the program’s history. However, this historic stretch also might be coming to an end just a few seasons after it began.
The hope among fans and the program is that this is not the case. Either way, the program is entering a new chapter in its story, a chapter with the first sentence still being written.
Sachs’ leave of absence
The first sentence of the new chapter started last Tuesday afternoon, when a press release went out from SU Athletics stating that an interim head coach had been appointed. With Sachs on campus just the week prior preparing for the upcoming season, it was a surprise to most on campus.
The press release introduced former SU assistant coach Brian McDermott as the interim head coach with only one mention of Sachs there.
“McDermott steps into the role as Andrew Sachs is currently on leave,” the statement read.
As of this current reporting, that phrasing is the only comment SU Athletics has made on the subject of Sachs’ leave of absence. Other than that, athletics administration has had “no comment” regarding the move, citing it being a “personnel matter.”
It is to be seen what the reasoning is for the silence still nearly a week after the initial decision. SU Athletics has a right to keep the reasoning private, but it is a deafening silence considering the many successes of Sachs over the last three seasons and the sudden nature of the announcement.
That message continued late Thursday afternoon when McDermott was officially introduced to the media as the interim head coach of the team for the first time. As most would expect, McDermott’s reaction was the same as many on campus, surprised and still adjusting to his new interim tag just two days after Sachs’ leave.
For the SU alumnus and local high school basketball coach, the appointment for McDermott is a big step in his basketball career.
“First and foremost, I’m blessed,” McDermott said. “Getting this opportunity is life-changing for me. I’ve been in basketball my entire life and been around it. This is an opportunity that no one saw coming. I’m very grateful that I was considered for the position. I’m honored to take it.”
Understandably, just two days on the job, McDermott still was working out the details around how he plans to run and operate the program, but he does plan on continuing what Sachs already started. After he began to learn under Sachs last season, McDermott said that there will be very few differences moving forward, citing Sachs’ success in his position.
McDermott acknowledged as well the support that he has around him in returning assistant coach Shawn Tucker and graduate assistant Daniel Eacho, who both completed out Sachs’ staff last season.
In the end, nothing much seems to be changing with the program for the season ahead other than the change at the top while Sachs continues to be on leave. McDermott’s plan to just keep the ship steady in the weeks ahead is probably a smart one after such a rocky announcement last Tuesday.
Nonetheless, McDermott suddenly finds himself as the leader of one of the top men’s basketball programs in the Mid-Atlantic Region of NCAA Division III. With official practices beginning Oct. 15, he will have to swiftly unify the team together under his leadership, which he stated the current SU seniors might have a big part in.
No matter what the reasoning is for Sachs’ leave, the players are still the ones caught up in the middle of the situation, whether they know what is going on or not behind the scenes.
Whether with their head coach or not, Salisbury begins their season in about a month’s time in Maggs Physical Activities Center, hosting Arcadia on Nov. 10. The hope is that the transition will be a smooth one with McDermott at the helm.
The Sea Gulls will have the chance early on in the season to at least quiet the off-the-court issues briefly. One of the remaining impacts of Sachs will be the tough strength of schedule that Salisbury faces this season and maybe even next year.
With three home games to begin the 2018-19 campaign, it is the exact formula that SU needs to bounce back from the announcement of a week ago. Those first three potential opponents are tough as well.
Despite finishing last season at 14-14 (8-8 MAC Commonwealth), Arcadia did take down the Sea Gulls in Glenside, Pa. 72-64 in a game just before the holiday break hit. In the following weekend, Salisbury will also host their Optimist Tournament, in which they will play two games in two days.
Salisbury’s first opponent will be Lancaster Bible College. A school probably not familiar to many Sea Gull fans, the Chargers are familiar with the NCAA tournament, winning the North Eastern Athletic Conference last season for an automatic bid.
The Chargers then fell in the tournament at Christopher Newport University 68-65 in the first round, capping off a 23-6 (15-1 NEAC) season. Day two of the Optimist Tournament will provide Salisbury with the winner of the day one match-up of Johns Hopkins and DeSales.
Out of the MAC Freedom, DeSales did not make the “big dance,” but they did string together a sharp record of 20-7 (10-4 MAC Freedom). Johns Hopkins is a familiar opponent to the Sea Gulls in recent seasons.
The Blue Jays received an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament via their championship in the Centennial Conference. Johns Hopkins made it to the NCAA Second Round before falling 62-54 to M.I.T., which capped off a 24-5 (15-3 CC) season.
With the successes of their early opponents, the Sea Gulls have the opportunity to make a statement to at least the region if they can notch wins in these contests. Wins in these games would go a long way toward stocking up their NCAA tournament profile to start the season.
However, these tough teams will come into Salisbury, Md. just a month after the shock of SU losing their head coach for what seems like at least the season currently. This SU team that went on a strong run around their youth in the second half of last season may have to do the same again to start this campaign.
As of Thursday’s reporting, McDermott said that he had only met with his players once in his new role.
“My message to them has just been, ‘Stay positive. It’s all going to work out. Everything happens for a reason. You’re in the right place,’” McDermott said.
“Focus on what you can control. Those young men are smart enough to know what that means. They’re doing it, consistently working out. Nothing for them has changed.”
With the departure of a consistent scorer in Chad Barcikowski, the talented freshman class of a season ago might be the focus for production as sophomores in the coming weeks. One of the known commodities returning to the squad is a senior leader in point guard Blair Davis.
As the season went on last year, Davis emerged into that leadership role as someone taking those freshmen under his wing. Davis will certainly run a majority of the offense this season again.
The question mark headed into the season is now greater than ever: Who will step up to lead this squad into this new chapter for the program?
It was Sachs a few seasons ago. Now McDermott will have to call upon a few of his players to continue the program’s very successful run.
Much will be learned between now and the opening tip-off on Nov. 10, but one thing is for certain: The program has entered interesting times that no one really saw coming.