It might have been an omen.
Radio broadcaster Steve McElroy switched from calling UC Davis men’s basketball games to doing play by play at rival Sacramento State in 1997.
“My dad taught in the business department for 20 years, so I always wanted to be at Sac State,” McElroy said. “But that first season was painful. They won one game, and UC Davis won the (Division II) national championship.”
McElroy never thought it would take 18 years to see a winning Sac State men’s basketball program. So if anyone relished the Hornets’ historic 2014-2015 campaign, it’s McElroy.
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“For Division I, this was miles ahead of what any other team has done,” McElroy said.
Sac State went 21-12 overall, 13-5 in the Big Sky Conference and made the team’s first postseason appearance in the Division I era (1991 to the present) and won its first postseason game in 53 years. It marked the first time in the D-I era that the Sac State finished with a winning record and the 21 wins are tied for second most in program history dating back to 1948.
McElroy said the Hornets achieved all those milestones because they had a special group of players and an outstanding coaching staff, led by seven-year head coach Brian Katz.
Through Katz’s guidance, McElroy says the Hornets have overcome a number of daunting obstacles.
There was the persistent history of losing, the pint-sized gym and the long line of area high school players who once bypassed the program like the plague.
But since Katz’ arrival, the Hornets have improved every year, turned their tiny gym into a challenging place for opponents to play and now are getting some of the area’s better players to stay at home and don the green and gold.
“It took awhile,” McElroy said. “You didn’t know if a coach could ever win at Sacramento State with the facilities and with the other challenges. But Brian was the perfect guy. You got someone who wants to be in Sacramento, and no one works harder than he does.”
The reward for those countless hours and attention to detail: Katz was named the Hugh Durham Award recipient as the nation’s top mid-major coach on Friday.
“His personality – he has that New Yorker look – but he’s the ultimate family man, and he’s a family man with the team,” McElroy said. “All his kids respect him.”
McElroy has gotten to know Katz well during the team’s long and arduous conference road trips that wind through nine states.
Sac State, which went 13-2 this season at home, spent nearly a month at the end of the season playing on the road. The Hornets traveled some 4,500 miles in playing three games to close out the regular season at Portland State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona; two conference tournament games in Missoula, Mont.; and a CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament game at Portland.
“People talk about NBA travel,” McElroy said. “We’re going to places like Grand Forks, N.D., Pocatello and Moscow, Idaho and Greeley, Colo. Those aren’t easy places to get to, so you are not only catching planes but taking long bus rides.
“This conference has to be the worst as far as travel in the country. It took us more than six hours to bus from Southern Utah to get to Northern Arizona. When you go to Grand Forks, the wind chill factor is 40 below.”
But it allowed an already tight group of players to bond even more. McElroy said this season’s group was particularly close. That’s because he said Katz recruits more than just basketball players.
He also wants good students and upstanding citizens. The Hornets posted a 3.15 grade point average during the fall semester, the highest cumulative grade-point average in school history for the men’s basketball program.
Of the 21 Hornets that have used their eligibility during Katz’s tenure, 19 have graduated. Seniors Mikh McKinney, Dylan Garrity, Alex Tiffin and Zach Mills are on pace to graduate either this spring or next fall.
“You know that all 14 of these guys are going to graduate,” McElroy said of a team that includes five freshmen. “Shortly after our big win in Portland (the team’s first postseason win in 53 years), I see Zach Mills, who is a double major, walk past me in the restaurant to grab a coffee pot.
“I asked him what he was doing drinking coffee at 11 o’clock at night and he says, ‘I’ve got to study.’ Everybody figured they’d be going crazy running up and down the halls after beating Portland. Instead they were studying because they had missed so much school.”
McElroy said McKinney and Garrity were special players, two of the best to ever play for the Hornets. McKinney was the Big Sky Conference Player of the Year and Associated Press honorable mention All-American while Garrity received All-Big Sky recognition all four seasons.
“No one has more wins in the Hornets’ D-I history than Dylan,” McElroy said. “And McKinney has to rank as the best as far as making his team win ballgames.”
McElroy said all the struggles through the years – the Hornets once lost 27 consecutive Big Sky road games – made this season even more special for him.
“For this to go from a team that never was above .500 to one that wins 21 games, it was an unbelievable thrill,” McElroy said. “To be a traveling partner with this team made it bigger than life for me.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.