It's been a year and half since the Saint Mary's College community enjoyed the feeling of its men's basketball team reaching the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
That thrill has returned to campus, and this time, it's coming from the soccer pitch.
Thanks to a 2-1 double-overtime win over UC Irvine on Nov. 20, the Saint Mary's men's soccer team returned to Moraga this week looking forward to its cross-country trip to the Sweet 16. A game against Brown on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Providence, R.I., awaits the West Coast Conference champion.
In many ways, the journey taken this year by the soccer team mirrors its basketball counterpart.
After the win over Irvine, the Gaels returned to Moraga to a hero's welcome. A police and fire escort awaited the team once it got back to town, and when players got to campus, they were greeted by cheering students and fans. That group of supporters included the men's basketball team, which halted practice to greet their classmates.
"The support we get from the administration within the athletic department and the administration just from the school is unbelievable," Saint Mary's soccer coach Adam Cooper said. "Half of the athletes are out there even though they took a break from practice to come out and greet our bus and that says something. It says something about these guys and what they're doing, and it also says something about the school in general."
It was a well-deserved reception. Saint
Three days later, the Gaels found themselves battling a strong Irvine team and soggy conditions. Tied at 1 after regulation and one overtime period, De La Salle High graduate Justin Howard scored a golden goal to send Saint Mary's on to the round of 16.
"This has been what we've been looking forward to the whole year. We wanted to make a run in (the tournament)," Howard said. "We didn't know how far we could get, but we have this common belief that we're going to keep going."
As if the parallels weren't already obvious, the Gaels now travel to a town that has been good to Saint Mary's in the past. Providence hosted the basketball team's tournament wins over Richmond and Villanova in 2010. The soccer team will try to duplicate that success against a Brown team that reached the round of 16 for the second straight year.
"With the group of guys we have, I can't believe there's another team in America that has the team chemistry we have and is willing to work as hard as we are," Gaels goalkeeper Doug Herrick said. "As long as we keep that attitude and keep realizing that we have something to prove and we're the underdog, I think we're going to be OK."