By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – For the Catholic University men’s and women’s basketball teams, these are the best of times.
Sporting a combined record of 39-3 (.929), CUA is one of just six Division III schools – out of more than 400 – to have each of its teams ranked in the Top 25 nationally by D3Hoops.com.
The Cardinal women (20-1) are off to the best start in their 54-year history and ranked 13th in the nation by D3Hoops.com and USA Today. With three more wins, they would break the school record for season victories, a mark they just set last year. The men are 19-2, lead the Landmark Conference by three games and are ranked No. 8.
“It’s been a really fun winter for everyone associated with those programs, and we’re proud of the success both teams have had,” CUA Athletic Director Dr. Mike Allen said. “There’s still a long way to go, but it’s been a lot of fun so far.”
This unprecedented collective success has each Cardinal team hopeful that it could translate into some postseason hosting opportunities.
The CUA men jumped into the national rankings after opening the year in the Hoopsville National Invitational Classic with victories over preseason No. 16 Transylvania University and No. 19 St. Mary’s (Md.) College. The Cardinals were ranked 14th the next week and have been in the rankings ever since, rising as high as No. 6.
Steve Howes, in his ninth year as head coach at his alma mater, felt good about his team’s prospects until four key players suffered preseason injuries.
“I had to scrap what we planned on doing in the fall and really began a different way to play,” Howes said. “I knew we were still very talented; I just didn’t know how quickly we would mesh.”
Matt Donohue, CUA’s women’s basketball coach, didn’t face such concerns. He was returning all five starters to a club that went 22-6 (11-3) and won the first conference championship in school history. The Cardinals captured their two Landmark Tournament games on the road and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time. This season’s national ranking is likewise a program first.
“You always feel like you can do some great things; you always try to have great confidence in your team, but even for me, as a head coach, 20-1 has a definitive, surreal type of a feel to it,” said Donohue, who became CUA’s all-time winningest women’s basketball coach this season.
The teams’ records are even more impressive when you consider the quality of competition they have faced. The men have defeated four preseason Top 25 teams, including Randolph-Macon College and the league rival University of Scranton. Howes said his team’s 72-47 exhibition game loss at Division I George Washington University helped set the tone for the season, particularly defensively.
The Cards are 14th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (38.1 percent) and fifth in scoring defense (56.4 points per game).
“I thought the game at GW really helped to establish a defensive tone,” said Howes, CUA’s third-winningest men’s basketball coach. “I thought halfcourt defensively, we played very well against them. … I felt then that we had an opportunity to be pretty good with the way we played against them, and as undermanned as we were.”
The Cardinal women have scored impressive victories over Virginia Wesleyan (22-6 a year ago); Marymount University, which stands 18-4; and then-No. 18 York (Pa.) College, 60-52, on the road. Scranton has been ranked nationally this year, and Moravian (19-3), which the Cards trail by half a game in the Landmark, is currently 19th.
Donohue said the genesis of the stronger schedule came about 15 minutes after his squad lost to Muhlenberg College in the NCAA Tournament in Alliance, Ohio.
“Our then-rising seniors came up to me and started talking about really wanting to bolster our strength of schedule, wanting to play teams the quality of Muhlenberg and really wanting to challenge ourselves as much as possible,” Donohue said. “So we started with putting together a schedule we thought would get us ready for Landmark play, and that was really at the request of the young women in the program.”
CUA ranks 15th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (31.2) and rebound margin (10).
Leadership at the Top
Another strong suit of each team is its senior leadership. The men feature a senior nucleus of center Chris Kearney, forward Nate Koenig and combo guard Shawn Holmes.
Kearney, averaging 17.6 points and 7.2 rebounds – both team highs – has been named Landmark Conference Player of the Week twice, while Holmes (16.8 ppg, 3.3 apg) has won the honor once. Koenig (8.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) recorded his first double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds in an 84-73 victory over Drew University. Sophomore Steve Limberiou and freshman Bryson Fonville round out the starting five.
“Our seniors have helped teach the culture of Catholic University basketball to the guys and really have kept everyone on target in terms of what our mission is,” Howes said.
Donohue’s squad features seven seniors, four of whom are in the starting lineup. Small forward Jill Woerner paces the Cards in scoring (17.1 ppg) and is the third-leading scorer in program history (1,423 points). She’s also averaging 6.6 boards and 2.8 steals and was named Landmark Conference Player of the Week on Dec. 3. She turned down a scholarship offer to play at Butler University so she could major in biomedical engineering at CUA.
Center Katarina Owunna is averaging 11.6 points and a team-leading 8.6 rebounds. Forward Kelli Josephsen averages 7.8 points – as does guard Jenny McGann – and 6.7 boards. McGann scored a career-high 22 points in a 77-74 win at Juniata. Junior point guard Emily Grabiak is 22nd in the nation in assists (5.2 apg) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.82).
“From a leadership standpoint, we’ve got a really great group of senior young women,” Donohue said. “Two of our three captains are seniors in Jill Woerner and Jenny McGann. They just did a really great job from the minute we hit campus of setting the tone [and] understanding what it would take to put ourselves in position to compete for a Landmark Conference championship this year.
“And they started from day one, really taking ownership and insisting that the young women in our program do the same.”
Supporting One Another
After the Cardinal women win a home game on doubleheader days – they’re 9-0 at DuFour Center this season – they wait outside the men’s meeting room to give them high-fives and other signs of support. The men, who are 11-0 at home, have a formed a tunnel before women’s games for the ladies to run through, and each squad tries to watch at least half of the other’s doubleheader games.
“It’s a very supportive environment,” Howes said. “Both teams are very friendly off the floor, and the staffs are the same way. It’s really neat to have the women doing so well and the environment on game day that it’s created for us.”
Mutual support is huge on the road, where often your only fans are friends, family and your companion hoops team.
“It’s been like that since day one,” said Donohue, who came to CUA in 2008. “Steve has preached that with his young men that we’re all part of the same family here, and when we’re on the road, sometimes we only have each other to look to. There’s been a definitive camaraderie between the men’s team and the women’s team since I’ve been here. …
“Steve arranges his travel schedule so that by the time our game is beginning, his guys are in the stands there to support us, and it means a lot that he cares enough to do that for us. And we’ve been excited to do the same for him.”
The head coaches have to work together, particularly on coordinating practice schedules, so it helps when they get along.
“It makes it enjoyable for everyone associated with both programs when the coaches have that mutual respect for one another like those two do,” Allen said. “Not only do they respect each other, they also genuinely seem to like each other. It’s really enjoyable for all of us to see that kind of camaraderie on the staff.”
The Cardinal basketball teams place a high premium on their studies. The women had a 3.41 team grade-point average last year, and the men last spring posted the highest GPA of any male team on campus (3.3). The clubs also participate in community service projects.
“One of the great common themes among both of these teams is that they really have outstanding, well-rounded young men and women,” Allen said. “The players on both teams excel in the classroom; we have some really stellar student-athletes. And I think that kind of approach towards excellence in everything you do is a trademark of a program, and we see that in both of these programs.”
The Cardinal men and women are outstanding ambassadors for The Catholic University of America.
“It’s not just what they’re doing on the basketball court,” Allen said, “but it’s what they’re doing in the classroom; it’s the way they carry themselves on campus.”
Chris McManes is a public relations consultant for the CUA Department of Athletics.
CUA basketball teams enjoying unprecedented success
By Chris McManes