Reviewing the best year in Towson sports
Correction (May 5): During the men’s basketball record losing season, they lost 31 games, not 41. Their record for that year has been updated.
It was a Saturday afternoon beyond any Towson had ever experienced: the Football Championship Subdivision championship game on Jan. 4. I, like hundreds of Towson faithful, made the trip to Frisco, Texas to witness Towson playing in its first Division I title game.
As I sorted through the hoards of North Dakota State fans, all clad in yellow, I thought to myself: Is this the beginning of something special?
Three months later, I was standing in the student section of Towson’s Colonial Athletic Association quarterfinal matchup against James Madison at Baltimore Arena. Each of us got a free shirt that read, “We are Towson University,” along with a list of the butchered pronunciations – “Townson” and “Townsend,” to name a few.
After the Tigers dismantled the Dukes in front of thousands at Baltimore Arena on March 8, I said to myself: I think they know who Towson is now.
I have been lucky enough to be a part of the peak of the resurgence of football and basketball, which created excitement on campus that it had never experienced before. Add in the record-breaking performances from other Towson teams while I wasn’t looking, and we may be in the middle of the most successful year in school history.
“I think the success, to be honest, is what I expected,” Athletic Director Tim Leonard said of this year in sports. “It wasn’t a surprise… It’s a pretty special time right now at Towson.”
The buzz around Towson’s football team began early, when it took down Football Bowl Subdivision foe Connecticut in the season opener. I sat in my room, watching the game on ESPN3 (it was unheard of for Towson to appear on a network) and saw Facebook and Twitter explode, with Towson fans clamoring about the 33-18 upset.
That game set the tone for the season, and the Tigers went on to win six straight games and saw their ranking rise to No. 2 in the Football Championship Subdivision. The Tigers finished the regular season at 10-2, already the most wins in program history in a Division I season.
I sat in Paws, surrounded by football players and we watched the FCS Selection show; fans cheered when they announced that seventh-seeded Towson would host Fordham, landing on the opposite side of the bracket as No. 1 North Dakota State.
The next three weeks affirmed my belief that this season was special, as the Tigers rallied off three more wins, over Fordham, No. 2 Eastern Illinois and No. 3 Eastern Washington. The Tigers would advance to the National Championship game.
“Seriously, this is kind of cool. We’re practicing more than a [Division 1-A] bowl team,” Head Coach Rob Ambrose said at the team’s media day before the big game. “How weird is this; that it’s [the New Year] and we’re still playing football?”
At 13 wins, Towson had already eclipsed the school record and had 29 wins in two seasons, more than the last seven seasons combined. I spoke with President Maravene Loeschke at the Towson Pep Rally in Allen, Texas, where hundreds of Towson fans gathered the night before the national championship.We sat among the contingent of Tiger faithful and marveled at the crowd that had traveled 1,367 miles to watch the game.
“It gives me chills… because we are used to seeing each other [at Towson], but now we’re all in Dallas together,” Loeschke said of the pep rally. “When any part of our university reaches this kind of a national prominence, all boats rise with the tide.”
The national championship did not go Towson’s way, as North Dakota State took home its third straight title. But the team had already made history. It seemed like the start of an upward trend for Towson sports, as the men’s basketball team topped cross-town rival Coppin State that night to improve to 9-6.
Yes, that basketball team, the one that finished 1-31 just two years before was now picked the preseason favorite to win the Colonial Athletic Association.
I had already watched Towson upset Temple, which had made six straight NCAA tournament appearances and 31 overall, in one of six nationally televised games. It was just the third men’s game in SECU Arena history on Nov. 14, and I, along with the other 3,553 fans, stood on my feet, rocked out to the ESPN song and cheered for most of the second half.
For a team that saw an average of 1,476 fans a game the two years before SECU Arena opened, a crowd of over 3,000 was rare. In fact, Leonard said the team’s success had doubled sponsorship revenue and increased attendance by 196 percent.
“I think people here are realizing that when you can win in sports, especially with programs like men’s basketball, the entire University wins in games and that type of exposure,” men’s basketball Head Coach Pat Skerry, said.
Students packed SECU Arena throughout the season, boosting the average to 2,564 to watch the Tigers finish at 25-11 and second in the CAA. The 25 wins are the most as a Division I team– more than either of the two years the Tigers made the NCAA tournament (in 1990 and 1991).
Towson made the CAA tournament in Baltimore, where I got to witness this part of history from the fans’ perspective, singing the Towson fight song, waving my hands at opposing free-throw shooters and heading into town with hundreds of other students on five school buses.
Although the campaign for an NCAA tournament bid ended against William & Mary, Towson won two games, over University of South Carolina Upstate and East Tennessee State, in the Collegeinsider.com tournament, the school’s first two postseason victories. It wasn’t the NCAA tournament berth he wanted, but Skerry said he is proud of the school spirit that emerged from this season.
“You really feel a great sense of university and community pride in Towson,” he said. “As our programs catch up to our great academics here at the University, it’s pretty exciting.”
It sure is. While basketball was competing for a CAA title, the swimming and diving team was in the midst of its best year in program history, posting 24 wins combined between the men and women.
The women’s 13-1 record was expected from the women’s team, who had won five of six CAA championships. But the men’s team completed its best season, at 11-2, since 1982.
Each time I called Head Coach Pat Mead after a meet, his confidence in the men’s team grew. Mead took his team to the CAA championships, where the women won again and the men finished in third, their best conference finish since 2001.
“It was a remarkable experience for everyone, start to finish, men and women,” Mead, who won CAA coach of the Year, said. “They did what I thought they were capable of doing and what I wanted to do…There were so many outstanding performances, it was hard to keep up with everything.”
Towson sent three women to Nationals in Minneapolis, Minnesota in March — Kaitlin Burke, Cassie Sorna and Melanie Rowland. Burke finished the 1,650-yard freestyle in 11th, earning All-American honors.
Swimming’s success was over and the torch was passed to Towson’s softball team, which entered the history books on April 9. Junior pitcher Missy McCormick gave Towson something it had never seen before, a perfect game.
McCormick also added a three-run home run for the Tigers, who will play in the CAA tournament on Wednesday.
“It is one of the best softball softball accomplishments I’ve ever had,” McCormick said. “It feels amazing knowing I’ve accomplished something that is so rare, and making history for the school.”
Speaking of making history, just yesterday, Towson women’s lacrosse won its third consecutive CAA championship, over James Madison in overtime Sunday. It becomes the first team in CAA history to three-peat.
I spoke with Head Coach Sonia LaMonica before the season, and she reiterated time after time that her team could compete with the nation’s top teams. This belief strengthened when Towson took down No. 10 Georgetown at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Feb. 22.
LaMonica told me afterward that her team was getting used to being among the nation’s best.
“I think our girls have had a good taste of . . . what it feels like to be in this position,” LaMonica told me. “Now, we want to get comfortable here . . . we belong in this league.”
After clinching a berth in the NCAA tournament on Sunday, Towson has another chance to show that they do, in fact, belong.
And that’s what this entire year has been about: rising to national prominence. No other year in Towson sports has produced this much buzz and I got to come along for the ride. Will it continue through the next few weeks? Stay tuned.