by Michael Vernetti
The Gaels’ annual team banquet Wednesday night at the Moraga Country Club was in many ways the same lighthearted look back at the completed season that it is every year — a time for good-natured jibes among teammates, team awards and some reflection from the coaches.
A good time was had by everyone who squeezed into the “ballroom” that has clearly become too small for the growing interest in this event. One of the best bits of news floating around was that the dinner will move into the more spacious Soda Center on the Saint Mary’s campus next year. Good plan.
Among the good vibes, however, was the sense that this year marked the graduation of more than just a few good players — that some sort of era had passed that the Gaels will be hard pressed to equal in the future. To be sure, great players have moved on in the past, from Patty Mills to Matthew Dellavedova, from Omar Samhan to Brad Waldow, from Diamon Simpson to Rob Jones.
But as coaches and players repeatedly made clear Wednesday night, the graduation of Joe Rahon and Dane Pineau is of a greater order of magnitude. Back-to-back seasons of 29 wins against a total of 11 losses was an historic milestone: the 29 wins racked up season before last was a team record — equaled last year — and the five losses in 2016-17 gave Saint Mary’s its highest winning percentage in program history.
Throw in three post-season wins in the NIT and NCAA Tournaments and it is clear something special has, indeed, taken place. Over and over again, the role of Rahon and Pineau in accomplishing that something special was made clear Wednesday night.
Head coach Randy Bennett, guided as usual by the inspired emceeing of NBC Bay Area sports analyst Matt Maiocco, called Pineau one of the two best inside players he ever had — alongside Simpson. He said he hopes his returning players were paying attention to the example that Pineau and Rahon set as players and leaders.
“Those are two big holes to fill,” Bennett said. “One guy won’t do it. It’ll take a group effort.”
Danny Yoshikawa, called upon to present the Defensive Player of the Year Award for the Gael coaching staff, marveled at how Rahon and Pineau — who shared the award — provided leadership for the Gaels.
“Joe would take the opposition’s best 1,2 or 3 every night for two years and shut him down,” Yoshikawa said. Coaches would huddle at halftime to review how the opponents’ top scorers did in the opening 20 minutes, and, Yoshikawa remembered, “It was always 1, 2 or maybe 3 points if Rahon had sat down with foul trouble.”
The same was true of Pineau guarding the opponents’ 4 or 5 position, Yoshikawa said, calling Pineau’s ball hawking ability on ball screens “an extraordinary thing.”
Looking to the future
For all the attention paid to the contributions of Rahon and Pineau, however, Bennett was anything but gloomy in looking to the future. He said Saint Mary’s was still reaping the benefits of last season’s success, particularly the opening round NCAA win over VCU and the near-miss against Arizona (L69-60).
“Recognition [of our program] is at a different level” since last year, Bennett said, citing the effect of Saint Mary’s season-long position among the nation’s top 25 teams, and the exposure gained from playing Arizona in prime time on a Saturday night.
“That was great for our program,” Bennett said, then left dangling the promise of some undisclosed payoff. “We’ll get some benefits moving forward,” he said tantalizingly. With two scholarships still to give for next season due to the decommitment of Angus Glover and the transfer of Stefan Gonzalez, attendees were left wondering if some recruiting news was still to be made. Nothing else was added to the tease, however.
Bennett said the crucial non-conference portion of the Gaels’ 2017-18 schedule was all but wrapped up with three games to come in the Wooden Legacy over Thanksgiving weekend (possible opponents include San Diego State, Georgia, Harvard, Saint Joseph’s, Washington State), and rematches against Dayton and Nevada.
Cal is back
The biggest scheduling news, however, was a three-year contract with the California Golden Bears, beginning with games there and concluding with something Saint Mary’s fans thought they would never see — a contest against Cal in Moraga. The heavens did not shake when Bennett let that that gem slip from his lips, but the crowd burst into applause over the news.
Bennett, who is usually loathe to give out anything fans would consider news, was unusually generous on that score Wednesday night. He reiterated something that had leaked earlier — a $1 million gift to the McKeon expansion, aka Student Athlete Performance Center — that will enable groundbreaking on the long-awaited project this summer.
And, Bennett announced that the immensely popular Alumni All-Star Classic will return on June 25. As with the inaugural event in 2014, there will be an old-timers game for more seasoned alumni, followed by a main contest featuring ex-Saint Mary’s players now playing professionally. More than 100 former Gael players participated in the first all-star event, and more than 3,000 fans showed up to watch them perform.
And now for the entertainment portion
In addition to news and recognition of the contributions of Rahon and Pineau, the evening’s main activity was the player introductions that give Gael athletes the opportunity to expose foibles of their teammates. The format calls for each member of the Saint Mary’s team to “introduce” a randomly-selected teammate, with the introductions serving as a gentle roast.
Turns out forward Calvin Hermanson is not just making a sartorial statement with his trademark goggles, headband and grotesque mouthpiece — it is a reflection of his nerdy nature. Teammate Evan Fitzner called Hermanson “the biggest nerd I’ve ever met” because of his obsession with video games.
Sophomore guard Jordan Ford didn’t wait for someone to make fun of him — he did it himself when introducing Jock Perry. Hanging out with Perry is disastrous to his dating life, Ford said, because Perry “is 7-1, has nice hair and an Aussie accent.” Girls never make eye contact with him when Perry is around, Ford lamented.
Emmett Naar, who has a sly sense of humor behind his angelic demeanor, gave a humorous spin to Pineau’s departure, complaining that he’ll actually have to play defense next year without having Pineau available to erase his mistakes. Naar was on the receiving end of a jibe from Hermanson, who said Naar’s small size and youthful looks caused Hermanson to “lose him in a crowd of kids at Moraga Commons.”
Even though cast as a hero throughout the evening, Rahon showed a biting sense of humor, which was directed at Bennett as well as some of his teammates. He quipped that “Bennett’s heart was as big as his suit” and predicted that a major step forward for Bennett would be an introduction to Microsoft Word instead of assembling a closet-ful of hand-scribbled notes.
He skewered guard Tommy Kuhse over his ability to light up a room because of the light reflecting off his pale skin, and said Hermanson would be glad to tell you about his thunderous dunk against VCU if you hadn’t seen it. “He was up ’till 3 a.m. watching ESPN to see if it made the Top 10 highlights,” Rahon said.
It was all in good fun, and it made for a good night shared with the players and coaches.
It’s no coincidence that Calvin Hermanson, shown above driving the lane, looks so weird with his goggles and headband: according to teammate Evan Fitzner, he’s “the biggest nerd I’ve ever met.” Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.