This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. We kicked things off looking at South Dakota out of the Summit League. Next up is the Mount Saint Mary’s basketball program. The Mountaineers are led by Dan Engelstad, who just completed his third year at the helm.
Formerly an assistant at The Mount in the late 2000’s, he returned to lead the program in 2018, with the goal of getting the program back to the top of the Northeast Conference as they did while he was there ten years earlier. Engelstad ultimately reached that goal this past season, taking the Mountaineers back to the NCAA Tournament. However, the road wasn’t easy. I chatted with Coach on how his group overcame a monthlong pause to stake their claim for a spot in Indianapolis this past season.
The Story of the 2020-21 Mount Saint Mary’s Basketball Program
Hitting the Ground Running
Summer workouts weren’t a thing in the off-season before the 2020-21 season. Opportunities that a coaching staff usually has to help players improve between seasons disappeared, meaning pre-season preparation became even more important than usual. Luckily, Coach Engelstad had a little bit of experience in that aspect.
“We got our guys back at the beginning of the school year,” Engelstad said. “I had a Division III background as a head coach where we had to try and get them to be good at basketball as a team in a short amount of time. We were trying to piece it together quickly.”
The Mountaineers progressed in team activities as best they could, starting with individual drills before moving onto group and team workouts. However, even with all of that in full swing, Engelstad understood to expect the unexpected.
“I told our guys that teams that are going to be successful this season are the ones that are going to be flexible,” stated Coach. “We just really tried to have our guys control what we can, and that’s all we can do.”
Buying into that mentality soon proved to be crucial as the season tipped off in Emmitsburg.
Having to prepare for a game you may not play is tough. You have to go through everything necessary for success, but a letdown could easily be on the horizon just hours before tip-off.
“I thought it was really healthy for us to be in that rhythm of practice and a routine,” Engelstad said. “But, also knowing that it can shut down, that’s hard mentally when you’re working towards something and then have to stop.”
The Mountaineers were able to get five games in early on, starting 2-3, including a conference win over St. Francis (PA).
“We actually played some really good basketball,” Coach remarked. “We played Maryland tough. Then, we were down a couple guys versus VCU and still held them to under 65 points. We probably played our best game in the league that I had been part of against a good St. Francis team.”
Just a few days later, what every coach feared this past season came true for Mount Saint Mary’s basketball. A positive test canceled their next scheduled game against UMBC. In all, The Mount lost three non-conference games and had their league games against Wagner rescheduled.
“We didn’t play a basketball game for a month,” Engelstad noted. “It was different to navigate trying to connect with your guys on Zoom when they’re quarantined. Quarantine was basically them not being allowed to leave their room. We tried to engage them as much as we could…but nothing ever replicates being able to be around them and communicate.”
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the Mountaineers were once again able to take the court against St. Francis-Brooklyn on January 7th. This was the first of many back-to-back games The Mount would play against NEC foes under their modified scheduling for the season.
“You don’t sleep,” Engelstad said. “If you’re on the high of a win, you have to get your guys back focused. If you lose a game, you know what the next game means. You’re trying to make a couple of adjustments on the fly and walk through things in the morning.”
The Mountaineers had their ups and downs throughout league play, fighting tooth and nail for the final spot in a conference tournament field that was shrunk due to the pandemic. Earning the fourth and final seed, Engelstad’s group had to face a stout Wagner team that had swept them just a few weeks earlier.
“The second game came down to the last possession,” Coach stated, “So we knew we could compete with them. I just told them ‘We’re not far off.’ You gotta keep working and pushing, and we’ll keep making some adjustments.”
Mount Saint Mary’s basketball took down the top-seeded Seahawks 66-60, earning a date with Bryant in the championship game. In a scenario fitting for a pandemic season, the Mountaineers were playing the Bulldogs for the first time, even though they had been scheduled to play them on two separate occasions in the regular season.
“We didn’t play them in our last two regular season games,” Engelstad said. “We drove 16 hours and didn’t play a game. However, we actually had to prepare for them twice. We knew it was going to be a challenge…but with the way we were playing and guarding, we liked our chances.”
Reaching the Pinnacle
Mount Saint Mary’s basketball defeated Bryant 73-68 to earn the NEC’s NCAA bid. The team took a moment to revel in their accomplishment before heading to Indianapolis.
“We were greeted by hundreds of fans at an outdoor event,” Engelstad said. “That was really great for our program and for our guys to see the support of the Emmitsburg community. We had our bus go around town and every family was out cheering for us. It was valuable for our guys to see how much they were appreciated because there weren’t fans at games this year.”
Even traveling to the tournament this year was different, but in a good way, according to Engelstad.
“I think it was a really great experience for our guys to get the charter plane and have the police escort,” Coach stated. “It really felt like it was something special going to it.”
Still, with all the extra attention, there were still plenty of reminders that the pandemic was ongoing.
“Usually you get the selection show in the comforts of your place,” said Engelstad. “This was a different year, so we had to keep getting tested.”
Reflecting on the Year that Was
Mount Saint Mary’s basketball was paired with Texas Southern in the First Four and ultimately fell to the Tigers 60-52. However, that didn’t dim just how far the Mountaineers had come during the 2020-21 season.
“I was so impressed with our guys and the resilience they had,” stated Engelstad. “They really helped elevate our program in the midst of a pandemic. That’s credit to them for sticking with it. To get through the ups and downs and be able to put it together at the end and play good basketball and really buy into what we were trying to build this program into.”
The biggest takeaway for Coach from this past season is how much his team fought through everything that came their way.
“It’s cliche, but you never know when your break is going to come,” he stated. “We were at a crossroads. We didn’t know if we were going to get into the playoffs. Yet, we snuck in and got the four seed. We kept pushing, we kept fighting, our guys believed, and now they’re champions for life.”
Mount Saint Mary’s returns their core group heading into the 2021-22 season. The Mountaineers know what it takes to reach their goals, and they should be right back in the thick of the NEC title race for the upcoming season. And, they’ll be stronger because of what they went through together this past season.