It's Friday morning and Catholic University basketball Coach Jack Bruen's telephone is ringing. When your team's winning streak has reached double figures, everyone wants to talk.
It wasn't long ago that the phone was silent, as the Division III Cardinals seemed closer to spring break than an NCAA playoff bid.
The Cardinals started the season 2-6, and the rides to games seemed to take forever. "The kids travel in vans," said Bruen. "They're packed in like sardines. It can be rough if you're losing."
Catholic began its streak by defeating Allentown in the consolation game of the Moravian Tournament in Bethlehem, Pa., and nationally ranked Washington College at home. During the streak, the Cardinals have beaten four top 20 Division III teams. They are 10-0 at home this season, including Saturday's victory over fifth-ranked Scranton. Monday night, they won at Gettysburg, their 13th straight victory. Tonight, they play at Salisbury State.
"I don't know if worried is the word," said Bruen of the poor start. "I was concerned. I was concerned the kids would start to doubt themselves.
"The important game was the Washington game. We weren't making the correct plays at the right time, and now we are. The kids are making the big plays, the big shots."
John Winkler, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior forward who led the Cardinals in scoring his first three years, said: "The whole credit goes to the coaching staff. They have never lost faith. Coach Bruen knows how to use his players."
Bruen played junior varsity basketball when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) was on the varsity at Power Memorial High School in New York City. At Catholic, Bruen set the school record for career assist average and most assists in a game.
From 1972 to 1979, he was an assistant to Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High School. After coaching a few years at Carroll High School, he became the head coach at Catholic in 1982 and led the Cardinals to a 40-38 record before this season.
As a player, Bruen described himself as "a little wild and scrappy." As a coach, he demands a lot from his players.
"I like to have them think when they go out there they are putting a little bit of themselves on the line," he said. "The problem when I arrived was Catholic was in transition of moving from Division I to Division III. It wasn't that it was a bad program, but it was a depressed program.
"I tried to instill that we weren't going to lose. If you're going to turn things around, you're not going to just do it on game days."
With all the recruiting disadvantages a Division III school has (the most important being no scholarships), Bruen has had to convince high school players that Catholic has much to offer. "We try to sell the fact that we have a terrific school (academically)," he said. "The fact that it's a nice campus, in Washington, D.C., and that we have a new facility."
One advantage Bruen has is his network of connections, from his days as a high school coach. That was how he landed Rob McCarry, a junior guard who is averaging more than 20 points. "He's a type of player a Division III school is lucky to get," said Bruen.
McCarry was a skinny high school player at a prep school in Havertown, Pa. Now, at 6-1, 170 he is considered by many to be good enough to play Division I.
"He's a great one-on-one player," said Bruen. "Probably his greatest attribute is he wants the ball, and you can't put a price tag on that."
McCarry gets help from Winkler, who said he "never had the confidence in myself" in high school at Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph's. "I was always overshadowed," he said.
Winkler had a relatively slow start this season, but in "the last seven or eight games has done everything," said Bruen. "He's one of the best clutch players I've seen."
And then there's senior forward Bob Burns, the team's tallest starter at 6-5 and the third-leading scorer. "The hub of the team," said Bruen. "He does the dirty work." His short haircut and dark high tops are in contrast with the rest of the team, but it fits his image: an aggressive player who will outhustle opponents for rebounds. He had a key steal in the final minute against Scranton.
"We have three potential 20-point scorers," said Winkler.
With Tim O'Brien and Mike Lonergan playing steadily at point guard, and guard Charles Thompson (15 points against Scranton), center Kevin Morrison and forward Ed Larkin doing well off the bench, the Cardinals are keeping the winning streak intact.
And they're enjoying the ride.
"It's something everyone should experience, taking a four- or five-hour bus ride," said Bruen of Division III basketball. "Our kids have to put up with a little different situation. They have to love the game. Our kids play as hard as anyone in the country.
"There is a market for Division III exposure. We're the silent majority."
Said Winkler: "Division III is your average guy playing ball."