"God is a Gael" - Saint Mary's Looks to Retain its WCC Crown in 2013

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Granted it wasn’t the Olympics, or a WCC bout against the Zags, or even a Division I opponent, but if Matthew Dellavedova sees an opportunity to take a charge, you can bet he’s going to take it.

The Sonoma State Seawolves did the honors of kicking off the 2012-2013 campaign in Moraga last weekend, and by halftime the score was 48-24 in favor of the Gaels. This didn’t stop Dellavedova, St. Mary’s Senior Captain, from quietly setting the tone for what is expected to be a special year of West Coast Conference basketball in Moraga.

From the last row of 3,500 seat McKeon Pavillion, I could see the play develop beautifully with a bird’s eye view. A Sonoma State guard saw a clear path to the basket from the left wing, while Dellavedova was at the top of the key. As the two players broke toward the basket, a collision was immenent. Sure enough, Dellavedova arrived at the point of contact just in time, bit down on his signature mouthpiece, and proceed to get runover by a Division II backup.

What looked to be a textbook charge taken by Dellavedova, ended up being overturned by the officials during the ensuing timeout. The St. Mary’s bench could do nothing but laugh it off. Regardless of the botched call, the play confirmed something much more important. Dellavedova is back in Moraga for his swan song, and he still loves acquiring floor burns.

Coming off a historic year in which St. Mary’s won both the WCC regular season and tournament titles, the Gaels come into this season with arguably their deepest, most experienced team ever. Even with the news that Randy Bennett’s squad is being investigated by the NCAA for a possible recruiting violation, hope and promise spring eternal in Moraga. Picked in preseason polls to finish third in the WCC this year behind BYU and Gonzaga, the level of small school college hoops has never been higher on the west coast and SMC will be right in the thick of it all.

The Gaels first two wins of the season, first against Sonoma and then on the road against the always tough Utah State Aggies, have revealed a St. Mary’s team filled with talent, depth, personality and substance. As enjoyable as the Frank Allocco Jr./Brad Millard era of Flex Cuts and Bronco half court sets was, Randy Bennett has slowly developed a program that oozes with talent and raw athletic ability. They may have had to outsource their recruiting to Australia to do it, but St. Mary’s has finally found themselves on even ground with the Gonzaga’s and BYU’s of the world, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun to watch.

St. Mary’s has lost two key players from last year’s squad that fell to Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The biggest loss was undoubtedly Rob Jones. A DVC alum, Jones was the Gaels’ second leading scorer and a physical presence around the basket. The Gaels also said so long to Clint Steindl, a long armed marksman from Australia who, when hot, was known for his ability to tickle the twine from beyond the arc. Luckily, Randy Bennett did what he always does, he reloaded the Gael roster with a new crop of exciting talent.

St. Mary’s will feature a bench this year that consists of five capable backups, two of which are experienced transfers. Sporting a thick frame and six foot eleven inches of height, Matt Hodgson will bring a dynamic skill-set to Moraga. Born and raised in Queensland, Australia, Hodgson spent his first two years of college playing ball for Southern Utah University. Like all the Australian’s Bennett recruits, Hodgson is noticeably skilled for a man of his size. A southpaw, Hodgson is not afraid to let fly with a lefty three bomb from time to time.

James Walker III comes to St. Mary’s off the Junior College hoops circuit. The Long Beach native began his career playing for Utah State in the WAC. Feeling inhibited by the Aggies half court style offense, Walker came back home to California to play his Sophomore year at Citrus JC. All he did there was win the California Junior College Player of the Year award while leading his team to the JUCO Final Four. Almost more importantly, Walker brings with him a Southern California swagger that has endeared him with the St. Mary’s student section. From his well cropped faux hawk to his Allen Iverson arm sleeve, to his checkered socks, it appears Walker has brought a welcomed slice of Silver Lake up north to the East Bay.

Also on the St. Mary’s bench, and perhaps just as hip, is Jorden Page. A redshirt Junior, Page is yet another Gael in the long line of Aussie imports. Similar to Patty Mills, the slight-of-build Page takes a silky smooth approach to the game. Page never seems to be over exerting himself out of the court, but instead buzzes around the court looking for ways to get his bigger teammates involved. Like Walker, Page brings his own sense of style to the hardwood, most recently rocking what appear to be a pair of leggings under his oversized Adidas shorts.

Rounding out this year’s Gaels Bench Mob are Senior Kyle Rowley from Trinidad and Redshirt Freshman Jordan Giusti from San Ramon. Rowley comes in at 7’0” and 280 and is tatted to the nines. By the looks of him, it is clear he has been around the block in the WCC and has been through some wars. If and when he is called upon to offer a hard foul in a key situation, Kyle Rowley will be ready and waiting.

Jordan Giusti, on the other hand, will serve as happy-go-lucky backup point guard. Giusti has been through some wars himself, those of the North Coast Section variety during his time at San Ramon Valley High School. If anything can prepare him for going up against Mark Few’s defense up in Spokane, Washington, it is Frank Allocco’s in Concord, California. The left handed guard plays with a ton of positive energy and will be a great asset for the Gaels off the bench.

So far during this young season the Gaels starting lineup has consisted of Dellavedova, sharpshooting Junior Stephen Holt, Junior Beau Levesque, Sophomore Brad Waldow and Senior Mitchell Young. Save for Rob Jones, SMC returns all of their starters from a year ago. It is assumed the offense will again go through Dellavedova and with good reason. Like a great leadoff hitter in baseball, as Dellavedova goes, the SMC Gaels go.

As always, standing in the way of the Gaels winning another WCC title are the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Currently ranked 19th in the nation, the Zags are the undisputed favorites to win the conference. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are two of the best shooters you will ever see, while Elias Harris and David “Don’t Call Me John” Stockton are also great players in their own right. The Zags are scheduled to come to town on February 14th, in what figures to be the best basketball game held in the Bay Area all winter.

Thanks to their continued success as a national program, St. Mary’s will be featured during ESPN’s traditional “Feast Week” over Thanksgiving. The Gaels have been invited to head down to Anaheim to play in the DIRECTV Classic featuring Cal, Xavier, and Georgia Tech. The overwhelming majority of prognosticators are picking the Gaels and Bears to square off in the final.

Considering the proven leadership of Randy Bennett, the experience of Matthew Dellavedova, and a talented, albeit eclectic supporting cast, expectations have never been been higher for College Hoops in Lamorinda. The road has been paved to the Georgia Dome for the 2013 Final Four. Now let's see how far the Gaels can travel down it...