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Longwood's Taking the Scenic Route

Small Virginia University Uses a Winding Road in Move Up to Division I

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page D03

FARMVILLE, Va., Feb. 22 -- The Longwood University basketball team loaded a bus around 1 p.m. Monday and traveled two hours north to play a game at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. About 10 hours later, after the Dukes scored four points in the final 39 seconds to win the game, Longwood's players got back on the bus as a losing team for the 28th time this season.

On Wednesday, Longwood's players will load another bus and then ride four hours south to Winston-Salem, N.C., to play No. 6 Wake Forest, one of the best teams in college basketball. Undoubtedly, when Longwood's players get back on a bus for the last time this season, they'll have lost again, only this time much worse.

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Longwood, a small school of nearly 4,300 students located about 65 miles west of Richmond, is playing an NCAA Division I schedule for the first time. The Lancers have lost 28 of their 29 games, beating only Howard, 75-69, on Dec. 18. The Lancers have lost in 10 states, as well as in the District, traveling more than 19,000 miles to play a schedule that has included seven layovers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and a 16-day road trip in December.

"Would we have liked to have won more games? Sure," Longwood Athletic Director Rick Mazzuto said. "But this is an experience our kids will never forget."

The team, which comprises five freshmen, eight sophomores and one junior college transfer, has seen Times Square and where the World Trade Center towers stood in New York. The players spent two days walking the Strip in Las Vegas. The Lancers have gone to the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39 in San Francisco. They attended an NBA game between the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets in Denver, and went to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

"Before those trips, I'd never been off the East Coast," said sophomore guard Maurice Sumter, a graduate of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. "I'm seeing the world for the first time."

Most of the college basketball world is getting to know the Lancers for the first time, too. Longwood is in the second of four years of NCAA Division I reclassification. The Lancers have played basketball since 1976, when the school became fully co-educational (it was founded in 1839 as a women's seminary). Longwood was more than competitive in Division II, playing in the national tournament four times. Jerome Kersey, who played 17 years in the NBA, was a star player at Longwood from 1980 to 1984. The 1979-80 team finished 28-3, ranked No. 12 in the country and advanced to the Division II Final Four.

So in November 2002, Longwood President Patricia Cormier notified the NCAA that the school intended to reclassify its athletic programs to Division I status. The school also fields women's basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and men's and women's golf teams. Cormier felt moving to Division I athletics would help raise the school's profile nationally.

"We believe that the Division I status will enhance both our institutional image and our recruitment efforts," Cormier said. "And we think our student-athletes deserve to play at that level."

Under NCAA rules, a school must go through a one-year exploratory period and then four years of reclassification. By the second year, the school must comply with all NCAA Division I rules, including the scheduling requirements. The schedule was put together by Coach Mike Gillian, in his second season after working the past seven years as an assistant at George Mason. Since the Lancers don't play in a conference (the school is seeking admission into the Big South Conference, which could rule on Longwood's application this summer), Gillian had to schedule 31 games without the benefit of conference opponents or traditional rivals.

Still, Gillian set his sights high. The Lancers played at No. 1 Illinois, losing by 26 points Dec. 27. Three nights later, Longwood lost to then-No. 17 Cincinnati by 26 in a tournament in Las Vegas. Longwood also lost games at San Francisco, Northern Iowa, Utah Valley State and Northern Colorado. From Dec. 27 to Jan. 11, the Lancers played seven away games and remained on the road for 16 consecutive days during the school's holiday break. Gillian said the trip cost about $70,000; Longwood receives about $20,000 to $25,000 to play games at schools such as Illinois and Cincinnati.

"There had to be some high-profile teams on our schedule that jumped off the page and grabbed people's attention," Gillian said. "Could we have done it differently and played a bunch of Division II teams and nobodys? Yes. But the goals are to build this program and raise the profile of the university. It would have been nice to have won more games, certainly. But in some ways, we won before we even started playing. The goal was to put Longwood on the map, and we've accomplished that."

Moving to Division I will require Longwood to upgrade its athletic facilities; the athletic department currently works on a budget of about $4 million. Conversely, schools such as the University of Georgia, which fields a Division I football team, has a total operating budget of $45 million and allotted $600,000 this season for men's basketball travel and other operating costs, not including coaches' salaries.

Willett Hall, the school's gymnasium, seats 2,522 and is scheduled to be renovated in the spring. The school has plans to replace the gym with a new convocation center within four or five years. Longwood already is building new playing fields for several of its spring sports.

Gillian brought in 14 new players during the past two years. His biggest pitches to recruits are the opportunity to play early and often and the chance to help build a program. Perhaps Longwood's biggest drawback is that it can not play in the NCAA tournament until it completes reclassification. Since the Lancers won't play in a conference tournament, either, their current players won't get to experience the postseason.

Longwood won't need to worry about the postseason, anyway, until its team becomes more competitive. The Lancers actually had leads in 20 of their 29 games. They led at halftime in six games, were tied at the half in two others and 10 of their 28 losses were decided by 10 points or fewer.

"We've got some guys who can play," Gillian said. "We've got some talented kids. We just don't have enough of them yet."

When the Lancers played at Illinois, Sumter tied the score at 2 with a layup 28 seconds into the game. Gillian called a timeout so someone could take a photograph of the scoreboard. Much to the surprise of the Fighting Illini, the game was actually close early in the second half. With 12 1/2 minutes to play, the Lancers trailed by seven. Illinois then scored 16 points in a row and won, 105-79, but Longwood's five starters got a standing ovation from many fans in the crowd of 16,618, who appreciated their effort.

"They gave us a standing ovation," Sumter said. "Seventeen thousand people were standing and cheering. I'll never forget it. We signed autographs after the game."

So even during a forgettable season on the court, the Lancers are finding plenty of moments to remember. If they lose to the Demon Deacons , Longwood will have one more chance at its second victory against Utah Valley State in its March 2 finale in Farmville.

"We haven't quit, and we're still building toward next season," said freshman guard Brandon Giles, from Magruder High. "I think the future is pretty bright here."

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