Gaels relaxed, confident at dinner

by Michael Vernetti

Apparently the only thing necessary to reduce Saint Mary’s basketball players to unconstrained hilarity is the sight of Dane Pineau and Emmett Naar with a microphone in their hands.

That was the take-away from a video shown at Saturday’s Tip-Off Dinner on the Moraga campus. Intended to reveal the personalities of Gael players through interviews conducted by either Pineau — the senior post — or Naar — the junior point guard — the video instead showed the players breaking up every time either Pineau or Naar attempted a question.

Maybe it was the unintentionally hilarious mustaches Pineau and Naar were sporting during the interviews (but thankfully removed in time for the dinner). Whatever the reason, fans got the impression that Pineau and Naar are really funny guys. Host Matt Maiocco summed up appreciation for the twosome by comparing them to a fine wine.

“They’re our own Pineau Narr,” quipped Maiocco, the 49ers beat reporter for Comcast Sports Net.

It didn’t matter to the crowd, who enjoyed the opportunity to see the Gaels having fun with each other. It is a relaxed bunch who clearly enjoy each others company, and for whom the weight of expectations over the upcoming season is not too heavy to bear.

And we did learn that freshman Arizona recruit Elijah Thomas is known as “Eli,” and that he can’t sing. Pineau induced him to try a few bars of his favorite song, then cut him off when a few strangled notes came out.

Further, it was revealed that freshman guard Jordan Ford from Folsom High outside Sacramento is a two-time California chess  champion in addition to a two-time Sacramento Bee Player of the Year. It can be assumed most fans didn’t know there was such a thing as a state chess champion, but were glad one of their own holds the title.

Ford also demonstrated he is right in step with the lighthearted personality of his teammates when he gave a perfect response to an inquiry into his reason for attending Saint Mary’s. “I really like playing basketball with Australians,” he deadpanned.

Other highlights

Here are some other nuggets from a night of videotaped and live interviews, plus conversations with various coaches.

Associate Head Coach Marty Clarke gave his trademark dry assessment of the incongruity of the Gaels fielding two post players with the surname “Jock” (junior Landale and freshman Perry): “There are only three people named Jock in Australia,” Clarke claimed. “One of them was my grade school math teacher — and he was a Scot — and other two are seven-footers at Saint Mary’s.”

While on the subject of the two Jocks, Perry, although undoubtedly tall at 7-1 or so, has not impressed his teammates with his overall physique. Perry revealed that his nickname is “Pipes,” an unflattering reference to under-developed (in his teammates’ view) forearms and biceps.

In a private conversation, Clarke revealed the behind-the-scenes path of 2017 Latvian recruit Kristers Zoriks to the Gael fold. Clarke spends much of his free time scouting international basketball competition, and recently noted a promising if scrawny 17-year-old guard in one of FIBA’s far-flung tournaments.

Shortly afterward, Clarke heard from a friend who is an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics (Clarke coached in Australia’s highest professional league in addition to the Australian Institute of Sports, now known as the Center of Excellence). The Celtics contact told Clarke of two outstanding recruits enrolled in one of the numerous prep schools in the Northeast — one of them a Serbian-Canadian who didn’t fill a Gael need and the other Zoriks.

Bingo! The connection made, the Gaels made Zoriks a target, and he verballed his intent to enroll at Moraga next fall. Clarke’s thumbnail assessment of Zoriks: “A 6-4 Emmett Naar.”

That the Gaels under Bennett relish guards is no secret, with six on the current roster and two expected to enroll in 2017 — Zoriks and Aussie Angus Glover. The message has spread to the Gaels front court players, as revealed when the players introduced themselves and their positions.

Stretch forward Evan Fitzner introduced himself as a 4-guard, and post man Jordan Hunter topped Fitzner by calling himself a point-center.

With the Seals in San Diego

A photo atop every table at the dinner featured the Gael players and coaches in swimsuits and related beach apparel, somewhere near a large body of water. Turns out the water was the Pacific Ocean and the Gaels were enjoying a time-out from a training exercise conducted by the Navy Seals.

Bennett said the coaching staff arranged the Seals encounter as a training and bonding exercise, and chose San Diego in deference to Gael players Fitzner and Joe Rahon, both San Diego residents. Few details were revealed about what the Seals subjected them to, but several players said it was challenging but fun.

Among other things, the upcoming season may reveal whether Seals and Gaels make good training partners.

Comcast sports reporter Matt Maiocco interviews Gael guards Joe Rahon and Emmett Naar during the Tip-Off Dinner. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.


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