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Catholic men, women opening NCAA tournament at home

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy

Both earn bids in same year for first time

There was a celebratory atmosphere Monday afternoon at Catholic University.

No, Easter didn't arrive five weeks early. The joy was over basketball. For the first time in school history, both the men's and women's teams are in the Division III tournament. Watching the NCAA selection show from a meeting room on Monday, the women's team didn't have to wait long to discover its fate. The Cardinals were on the top line of the first bracket revealed.

"We already knew we were in the tournament," Catholic women's coach Matt Donohue said. "But it was nice to see our name was the first to be called and we would be playing at home."

NCAA First round
Staten Island at Catholic men
When » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where » Dufour Center
Cabrini at Catholic women
When » Friday, 7:30 p.m.
Where » Dufour Center

The Catholic women's team (26-1) will open Friday night against Cabrini (24-3), with the winner advancing to Saturday's round of 32 against FDU-Florham (24-3) or Widener (21-5).

The Catholic men (24-3) will play Saturday against the College of Staten Island (22-5).

Both teams have been building toward this season but took different routes here. The 102-year-old Catholic men's program has a long tradition of success, including a Division III national championship in 2001 under Mike Lonergan. The Catholic women's program got its start in 1959 but had never played in an NCAA tournament until last year.

While many of the players on the men's team were drawn by the basketball tradition, most of those on the women's side came for the school's other selling points -- the academics, national prestige and urban setting in Northeast.

"The school offered a unique combination where I could be in a great city with the ability to play basketball and still focus on my studies," senior Jill Woerner said. "In practice we work on the same things every day. We're in here for a goal. We don't want to waste time."

In five years under Donohue, Catholic has improved from 12 wins in his first two seasons to a 22-6 record last year when the Cardinals earned their first NCAA bid. This year has been another step forward behind Woerner (16.9 points per game), senior Katarina Owunna (11.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg), junior point guard Emily Grabiak (9.3 ppg, 5.6 apg) and senior Jenny McGann (8.3 ppg).

The success of the Catholic men has been built on three seniors, all from local high schools. Chris Kearney (Westfield), Shawn Holmes (Calvert Hall) and Nate Koenig (B-CC) are the trio who remained from a freshman class of nine. Their persistence has paid off after winning 58 games in their first three years but coming up just short of an NCAA bid.

"The three of us have a great bond in that way," said the 6-7 Kearney, the top scorer (17.0 ppg) and rebounder (7.1 pg). "The younger guys have bought into our urgency."

Holmes (16.1 ppg) demonstrated his leadership Saturday, hitting the game-winning shot with three seconds left as Catholic won the Landmark Conference title game 63-62 over Juniata. Coach Steve Howes said Holmes has been the heartbeat of the team.

"His demeanor in practice from day one set the tone," Howes said. "He practiced with the highest sense of purpose. Young guys made comments to me that first week -- these upperclassmen practice at a different level than in high school."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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