By Chris McManes
GAINESVILLE, FLA. – The Fighting Irish last year; the Gators this season.
A year after leaving by bus to play at the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic University men’s basketball team left to play at the University of Florida on Tuesday. The Cardinals’ 24-person travel party departed campus at 8:29 a.m. and arrived at BWI Marshall Airport outside Baltimore about 50 minutes later.
Following a smooth check-in at the Air Tran counter, there was only one concern: would junior Nate Koenig get through security with the World Wrestling Entertainment championship belt around his waist. Fortunately, the TSA agents didn’t have to wrestle him to the ground. (Actually, being the champion, they thought twice.)
“It’s plastic,” Koenig said. Thank goodness.
Koenig, a 6-foot-4 swingman from Chevy Chase, Md., was wearing the replica belt as the Cards’ special teams player of the week. Freshman Dan Elliot was the first recipient, which rewards traits such as hustle, encouraging your teammates and doing the fundamental plays extraordinarily well.
“It goes to the guy who does everything that doesn’t show up in the stats,” sophomore manager T.J. Hyland said during CUA’s Tuesday night practice at Florida’s practice facility.
Following their flight to Orlando, the Cardinals stopped for a bite to eat before the nearly two-hour drive to Gainesville. After a quick stop at their hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, they held an intense two-hour practice.
The Cards will play the Gators on Thursday at 7 p.m.
“This is an amazing opportunity to play the ninth-ranked team in the country,” Cardinal Coach Steve Howes said. “I am so appreciative to Coach Billy Donovan and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley for agreeing to the game. What a thrill for our players and university. For as much fun as the trip will be, it is also necessary that we improve and become a better team.”
First-year assistant coach Ryan Hyland played a little trick on junior Shawn Holmes during the team’s flight. He asked one of the flight attendants to give Holmes a set of wings and certificate to commemorate his first plane ride, mementos usually reserved for young children. His teammates all got a good laugh and applauded when Holmes was approached.
Holmes proudly pinned the wings on his CUA jump suit but admitted, “It’s not my first flight.”
As the team was deplaning, the pilot encouraged the Cards to “beat Florida.” He wasn’t just being kind: “I’m a Florida State fan,” he said.
Some rivalries never subside.
Two Cardinals will be playing in their home state this week: sophomore shooting guards Gabe Estrada and Billy Donovan.
Estrada, who was born in Miami, grew up there and in Washington, D.C. He attended Washington’s St. John’s College High School as a freshman and completed his studies at Miami’s Gulliver Prep. Because he joined the Cards in January, he missed last year’s game at Notre Dame. His brother, Esteban, will make the six-hour drive from South Florida to Gainesville to see him play.
Donovan, whose father, Billy, is head coach at Florida, was born in Lexington, Ky., and has lived in Gainesville since 1995. He graduated from St. Francis Catholic. He’s looking forward to the contest, his first rooting against the Gators.
“The fans here have been great to my family for a very long time,” Donovan said. “They’re probably some of the best fans I’ve ever seen, especially in the SEC. So it will be really neat to play in front of the Rowdy Reptiles and the other enthusiastic fans. I was watching it growing up, so now I get to kind of live it a little bit. It’s good.”
Do you think the home fans will embrace you?
“I hope,” he said with a laugh.
Cardinals Fly Again
The last time CUA’s men’s basketball team flew to an event was before the TSA was in existence. It was 1999 and the Cards traveled to Las Vegas to play in the adidas High Desert Shootout. Two members of the travel party missed the flight and arrived later. That cost them a trip to the top-rated Carnival World Buffet at the Rio. During the team’s stay in Southern Nevada, it went sightseeing to Hoover Dam.
The Cardinals, under current George Washington University Coach Mike Lonergan, won both games in the tournament. Steve Howes was an assistant under Lonergan at the time.
Cardinals head south to play Florida Gators
By Chris McManes