Here in the shadow of the Catoctin Mountains, there is a basketball team already qualified and a coach highly qualified for a Final Four, packing to travel to Springfield, Mass., Thursday morning to compete for the Division II national championship.
Mount St. Mary's College, with an enrollment of 1,450 and a record of 28-4, will play South Dakota State (25-6) on Friday. If the Mountaineers win, they play the winner of Kentucky Wesleyan (24-6) versus Jacksonville State (29-1) for the championship Saturday.
To the townspeople of Emmitsburg and the alumni of Mount St. Mary's, none of this is extraordinary. Four times in Coach Jim Phelan's 31 years at "the Mount," he has led the Mountaineers to the Final Four.
"Back in 1962, we won the championship," said Phelan, who celebrated his 56th birthday Tuesday. "In 1957 we finished third, in 1961 we finished fourth and in 1981 we were second in the nation. I like to say I'm the only one who has hit for the cycle."
The other 27 seasons haven't been lean, either. Phelan, whose persona is as pragmatic and unadorned as the World War II airplane hangar in which his teams play, has won 579 games. He ranks fifth on the list of active coaches and is second in Division II to Clarence (Big House) Gaines of Winston-Salem State.
While others aren't surprised that Phelan is again playing for a national championship, he and his players are aware that favorable circumstances have brought them this far.
The Mountaineers, most of whom are from greater Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, have no single scoring threat. They have survived an Eastern regional that included a Virginia Union team which went through the regular season 30-0, Gaines and Winston-Salem, and a Randolph-Macon team that twice had defeated the Mountaineers during the regular season.
In their first-round game, Mount St. Mary's beat Randolph-Macon in triple overtime. In their second-round game, the first meeting ever between Gaines and Phelan, with more than 1,300 victories in the gym, the Mountaineers won, 63-56. Winston-Salem had eliminated Virginia Union in the first round. "I think there would have been some doubt about us getting by Virginia Union," Phelan said.
In the regional final, played in "the hangar" because C.W. Post's gymnasium on Long Island, N.Y., was too small to host it, senior point guard Marlon Cook, a graduate of Mackin High School in Washington, hit a 30-foot running jump shot to give Mount St. Mary's a 69-67 victory.
"I've hit some big baskets here before," Cook said. "But this meant the most. Everybody ran onto the floor and put me on their shoulders. And girls started kissing me."
Along with Cook, who averages 18 points per game and 5.1 assists, the Mountaineers count on the Edwards brothers. Paul and Darryle Edwards, out of Baltimore's Calvert Hall, are 6-foot-4 swing men who average 12.9 and 10.8 points per game, respectively. Neil Craig, a graduate of Carroll High School (D.C.), and Mike Grimes, a freshman who spent his last two years at DeMatha guarding Danny Ferry, share time in the pivot.
Mike Walker, a 6-7 power forward from Johnstown, Pa., completes Phelan's starting lineup.
Although Phelan is excited about the road down which his team is traveling, he has done it before. For the coach who puts on a bow tie "five minutes before the game and takes it off two minutes after the game," there was a more important road down which he decided to travel a long time ago.
"After we won the national championship in 1962, I talked to a number of schools," said Phelan. "It started getting serious in 1962. My kids were growing up at the time and if I even talked to schools, and I seriously talked to Rutgers, Virginia and Georgetown, as a matter of fact, my kids used to cry.
"I never was flat out offered the jobs. But I reached the point where I suddenly realized this is a great place to raise kids. I reached the point where it would take an awful lot to move me."