Manhattan Turnaround a Long Time Coming for Drew Kelleher

PHOTO COURTESY OF MANHATTAN COLLEGE ATHLETICS


When Luke Pacher and the rest of Manhattan’s fifth-year seniors arrived in the Bronx, they joined a program a decade and a half removed from its last NCAA tournament berth and even longer since its last real facilities upgrade.

The Jaspers’ locker room at the time? A large storage facility underneath where New York City parks trains at the northern end of the No. 1 subway line.

“It gets pretty loud in there, especially when other teams are in there and trains are honking and stuff,” Pacher said.

Now, though, it’s the Jaspers who are making noise.

Manhattan (8-6) will play its first NCAA tournament game since 2002 on Wednesday at Vermont (11-6). The Jaspers edged St. Bonaventure 8-7 in Saturday’s Metro Atlantic final, a milestone victory in coach Drew Kelleher’s seven-year run.

“It was the best day of my life, hands down,” Pacher said.

And it wasn’t easy getting there. Manhattan went 10-33 overall and 1-17 in league play in Kelleher’s first three seasons before a 6-8 mark in 2019 snapped the Jaspers’ string of six consecutive 10-loss seasons.

In that context, it would have to be tempting to reflect on the many steps it took to come this far.

“I’ve kind of tried to, but I just haven’t had time,” Kelleher said. “You win the game, and you have to get the guys back. We haven’t really had the chance to digest, and we’ll have plenty of time to do that this summer. … I know the impact will hit me soon, but just trying to stay in the moment and be on the bus with these guys and enjoy the ride.”

There were two rides to savor Tuesday. One was a six-hour trek to play the America East champions, with the winner turning around quickly for a Sunday game at top-seeded Maryland. But the other was the journey taken over the last three seasons, both on and off the field.

The Jaspers got a new locker room at Gaelic Park in the fall of 2019, and they were 3-3 when the pandemic shuttered the 2020 season, then went 5-5 last year and hosted the Metro Atlantic tournament before falling to Monmouth in the title game. That team had six graduate students, a sign to Kelleher that Manhattan had developed a program players wanted to be a part of as long as possible.







But it also ended with a painful memory for a team in a one-bid league.

“I already knew I was coming back, but when you’re watching someone else take the trophy right across from you, it kind of set that fire. I think that definitely set the tone for this season,” goalie Brendan Krebs said.

Krebs and Pacher, a first-team all-MAAC defenseman, are among six graduate students on Manhattan’s 38-man roster. Three of them — Pacher and midfielders Sean MacKinney and Jake Nicolosi — earned first-team all-Metro Atlantic nods.

Yet it isn’t a team with one transcendent star. Each of the Jaspers’ top four scorers has at least 21 goals and 33 points. Junior Kyle Gucwa leads in both categories with 30 goals and 39 points.

“We’ve just found ways to get it done as a group,” Kelleher said. “That’s a real testament to what these guys are all about, just finding a win. This year with this team, I’ve really enjoyed how they’ve put the team first. We don’t have a defensive player of the year or offensive player of the year. We just have a really strong team. Different guys are stepping up all the time.”

Never was that more apparent than Saturday, when goals were hard to come by against stingy St. Bonaventure goalie Brett Dobson. With the Bonnies’ defense difficult to break down, the only multi-goal scorer was attackman Justin Malpica.

The graduate student had three goals all season prior to the MAAC final, then he scored three times (including twice in the fourth quarter). It was his first hat trick since Feb. 20, 2018, the third game of his career.

“We talked last week at practice how in tournaments, a lot of times somebody comes out of nowhere and makes big plays,” Kelleher said. “For him to score three in the finals, I’m just so happy for him. He’s played really well. I’m really happy for Justin. He’s another fifth-year that’s pushed us over the top here.”

Manhattan needed a defensive stand in the final minute after the Bonnies closed within one, and the victory was sealed only after a shot to tie it sailed wide. Pacher figured he had to get matched up before realizing the significance of the moment.

“Then the horn blew, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I think we just won,’” Pacher said.

Krebs, who has known Pacher since kindergarten and played lacrosse with him from pee-wee leagues through their days at Long Island’s Chaminade High School and now at Manhattan, had a similar reaction.

“Coach and I were joking that we felt like the refs were going to come back out on the field and add more time on the clock,” Krebs said. “It was pretty cool. It’s a pretty surreal feeling. I don’t know if it’s set in yet. We still have more lacrosse to play, and I think that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

That starts against Vermont, which is making its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. The Jaspers’ only other NCAA berth resulted in a 12-7 first-round loss to Georgetown exactly 20 years ago Thursday.

The return trip took a while to secure, which makes the past few days something to appreciate all the more.

“As we’ve gone through, we’ve gotten better, and I think guys have gotten a taste of winning and they really like that more than anything else,” Pacher said. “Now it’s, ‘We want more of this. How can we get more of this?’ That’s really helped the program more than anything else.”

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