Saturday, March 1, 2008

Stags win seventh straight; Cooley and Han deserve recognition

After the Stags defeated Manhattan 83-71, Head Coach Ed Cooley quickly passed all the credit onto his players, explaining how much they have overcome on and off the court to turn it around and play so well over the past month. But while the players deserve a good deal of credit, Cooley should not have been so quick to pass all the success on to them.

In the pre-season, the coaches selected Fairfield to tie with Manhattan, who the Stags defeated for the second time this year on Friday night, for sixth place in the MAAC. With one game to go, Fairfield will finish in at least fifth place, with a chance to finish as high as first in the league.

Cooley has helped bring together a team that struggled early on in the season and it is his leadership and energy, as well as guidance, both on and off the court that has helped them turn around a season that was headed in the wrong direction.

When the coaches again sit down and look at the rest of their league, this time to hand out post-season awards, Cooley should get a long consideration for the coach of the year award. With a 14-14 record overall and an 11-6 record in the MAAC, the Stags are playing far and above what was expected. Over the past month the Stags have been the hottest team in the MAAC and have been nearly unbeatable, while knocking off the league's top teams.

Fairfield has not been swept by any team in the conference and swept both St. Peter's and Manhattan. With a win against Rider, the Stags will finish at least third and if the cards fall the right way, could easily finish second. First place would be a lot tougher, as Siena would have to lose to the lowly St. Peter's, but it would be possible.

Even if the Stags lose on Sunday, Cooley is still the best coach in the league. While every other coach watched his team go in a tail-spin headed down the stretch, Cooley's team surged to the top. Rider's Tommy Dempsey and Siena's Fran McCaffery could both lead their teams to first place finishes, but they both had chances to lock up first place earlier this season. Loyola has struggled and Niagara could not lock up a key win over Siena and should finish worse than expected, essentially knocking Jimmy Patsos and Joe Mihalich out of contention.

Meanwhile, Cooley emphatically stated that his star point guard, junior Jonathan Han, should receive consideration for the player of the year award. While the performances of Jason Thompson for Rider and Charron Fisher at Niagara (the nation's leading scorer), should prevent him from getting that award, but he certainly deserves a look at the All-MAAC First Team.

Han has scored when needed and passed when needed. He leads the league in assists (6.2 per game), while also scoring in double figures (11.6 per game). He plays virtually the entire game every time out and has come up huge in big game situations, including almost single handily leading the Stags to victory against Marist last week.

But in the end, the Stags entire regular season comes down to Sunday. Rider defeated St. Peter's on Friday night to remain in a first place tie with Siena and Loyola at 12-5, meaning the Stags can tie the Broncs with a 12-6 record with a win. With a sweep of the season series, Fairfield would move ahead of the Broncs and into fourth place in the league.

That as much of their destiny the Stags can control. If Niagara wins, Marist defeats Loyola and Siena loses to St. Peter's, the Stags will claim first place. If Niagara wins and Marist beats Loyola, the Stags will take second place.

No matter what happens, Sunday will certainly be a fun day.

-Tom Cleary

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