In 1990, two things happened in Worcester, Mass.: Holy Cross became an inaugural member of the Patriot League and I was born at St. Vincent's Hospital.
My parents' house is no more than 10 minutes from the campus and as my love for the sport of basketball grew, so did the influence of the Crusaders. By 1999, my dad and I would make the weekly trip up to Mount St. James to catch the men's/women's double-header against whichever far-flung college was in town for the day. While the colleges may have been small, the games were of the highest quality and I quickly fell in love with the defense-first style that Ralph Willard's men played with.
I've picked the 1999-00 season as the starting point because that is where the era in which three of the four Holy Cross players named to the Patriot League's 25th Anniversary team began. Tim Szatko (1999-03), Kevin Hamilton (2002-06), and Keith Simmons (2003-2007) were just three of the names that helped build the foundation on which my passion for basketball was built.
Szatko was the first. An all-purpose power forward with frosted tips, Szatko was remarkably consistent. He averaged 11.4 points in three of his four seasons and led the Crusaders to three-straight Patriot League championships, each of which resulted in a near upset of a national powerhouse.
Szatko lined up with the 6-10 Patrick Whearty, set screens for Ryan Serravelle and Jave Meade, and sucked the defense off the 3-point line for Brian Wilson to stroke from beyond the arc. He was the straw that stirred the drink -- or at least that's how I remember it.
If Szatko was the spark, Kevin Hamilton was the sustained flame. A New York native who played like one, Hamilton sat for much his freshman season behind the aforementioned stars, biding his time before Willard could cede more to him. With much of the core gone in 2003-04, Hamilton led the team in scoring with 11.0 points per game, but it was his defense that helped set the tone for what was the No. 7 scoring defense in the country.
After winning just 13 games in 2004, the Crusaders went 25-7 in 2005 as Hamilton's averages jumped to 15.7 points and 2.9 steals per game. This was also a breakout year for the third player mentioned above, Keith Simmons. Simmons' athleticism was evident from the jump, no pun intended, and his 12.1 points and 1.6 steals per game aided Hamilton enough to increase the scoring margin while maintaining that stout defense, which rose to No. 5 in the country.
This style of play - defense first, offense last - was surprisingly easy to digest. They pushed teams like Princeton and Boston College to brink, thrashed Fordham, and won 16 consecutive games in the Patriot League before falling to Bucknell, at home, the 2005 Patriot League Championship at the Hart Center (a team that boasted two members of the 25th Anniversary team as well in Charles Lee and Chris McNaughton).
I attended almost every home game that season, including the Patriot League Championship. Young players like freshmen Pat Doherty and Tim Clifford joined sophomore Torey Thomas and Simmons, and played beyond their collective years while Hamilton led from the front. So impressive was their regular season that the NIT rewarded them with a bid. The first match up? Notre Dame.
This was their shot. Led by Willard and his defensive acumen, Holy Cross had a chance to knock off a national program led by the likes of Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn and Collin Falls. After losing heartbreakers to Kansas and Kentucky, then drawing Dwyane Wade in the Szatko era, this was an opportunity for Holy Cross to cement itself as a program worthy of national attention.
Hamilton poured in 26 points and the Crusaders forced 19 Irish turnovers, resulting in a 78-73 Holy Cross win. They would lose their next game to St. Joseph's, but that Notre Dame win was so special, I hardly remember the loss.
After how special that 2005 season was, 2006 was a let down. Yes, they still won 20 games and went to the conference championship game, but without much of an offense and a defense that dropped all the way to No. 29, it simply wasn't in the cards for Hamilton's senior season. To this day he holds the Patriot League's single season and career records for steals, perhaps the best possible way to frame his career.
Simmons assumed leadership of the team in 2007, but by this point I had stopped going to as many games. Gone were the double-headers and mid-afternoon tip-offs which, combined with my own basketball and social endeavors, made the trip to the mount less desirable. The 2006-07 team went an impressive 13-1 in the Patriot League and exorcised the Bucknell demons with a 74-66 win in the Patriot League Championship before falling to Southern Illinois in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
After Simmons graduated, Willard hung on through the 2008-09 season before leaving to rejoin Rick Pitino at Louisville. From 1999 through 2007, the Crusaders' defense never dropped below No. 37 in the country and crested at No. 3 in 2002-03. Willard's ability to coax that defensive integrity out of his players was perhaps the biggest contributor to this incredible run and it is something you now see on full display with Pitino's Cardinals.
I was fortunate enough to take in this era from a bleacher seat in the Hart Center -- which, it should be said, would absolutely rock for evening games -- and the impact guys like Tim Szatko, Kevin Hamilton, and Keith Simmons, had on both the league and on me is one that cannot be understated.
It has been a rough last few seasons for fans of the Crusaders, but as we look back and celebrate the last 25 years of Patriot League basketball, we can look on that stretch from 1999 through 2007 and smile.