by David Elfin

Boy is it going to a big weekend at Catholic University. Its men’s and women’s basketball teams, each ranked ninth in the nation, are both hosting NCAA Division III Tournament games at the DuFour Center.

The 26-1 Cardinals women, who went to their first NCAAs last winter, meet Cabrini in the first round tomorrow night. A victory would put CUA back on the court Saturday evening against the winner of the game between Widener and FDU-Florham.

The 24-3 Cardinals men, who haven’t played in the tournament since 2007, take on Staten Island Saturday night. A victory would move CUA into a game the following weekend against the Williams-Wesley victor.

The only other schools with their men’s and women’s teams both so highly-ranked are Duke and Western Washington (Division II).

“It’s been awesome to watch their rise these last few years,” Catholic men’s coach Steve Howes said of the Cardinals’ women. “Hopefully we can both make deep runs. It’s special to be able to showcase the university and our rigorous academic standards this way.”

The NCAA appearance isn’t surprising for coach Matt Donohue’s defense and transition game-oriented women, who were 22-9 last year and include seven seniors, four of whom start, including Landmark Conference Player of the Year Jill Woerner, an extremely versatile 5-foot-11 guard with a 3.5 grade point average in biomedical engineering.

“Last year, we were just excited to be there,” said Donohue, the program’s most successful coach with 91 victories and a .679 winning percentage during his five seasons at Catholic. “We really frontloaded our schedule, but I think it helped us when we had some pretty tense moments. We knew we had a target on our backs this season after winning our conference last year. But I didn’t have to say a whole lot because our seniors have created an atmosphere of intensity from day one. They came in on a mission to repeat and go further.”

As an assistant, Howes recruited many of the players who helped current GW coach Mike Lonergan lead Catholic to the 2001 national title. After nine years in command, Howes is second to Lonergan in school history with 174 victories and a .690 winning percentage.

However, Howes didn’t expect his defensively tenacious team – 19-9 a year ago — to be in this position after losing veteran forwards Jared Price and Cody Otto, sophomore guard Shakir Evans (who had missed his freshman year with a torn ACL), and freshman swingman Luke Mulvaney to season-ending injuries before practice even began.

“I envisioned a very deep team, a much bigger team,” said Howes, a 1996 CUA graduate. “It put the burden on the seniors to really step their games up [which they have done along with surprising freshman point guard Bryson Fonville] and it meant our bench was going to be really inexperienced. This group plays for each other, plays great defense, and takes care of the basketball. If you do those three things, you’re going to be in a lot of games. This season has been a remarkably rewarding experience.”

One of those seniors who stepped up, center Chris Kearney, was voted the Landmark’s Player of the Year. The 6-7, 220-pound post player averages 17.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots.

“We’ve had a sense of urgency as seniors,” Kearney said. “There was definitely a sigh of relief on Saturday night.”

That’s when both teams won their conference tournaments in DuFour.

“I stormed the court for Steve,” Donohue said. “It’s been a lot of hard work for him over the last five years to get back to this point.”

Kearney’s roommate, 5-11 shooting guard Shawn Holmes, said the seniors have been driven to reach the NCAAs since last season ended.

“One day in our apartment, me, Chris and [senior swingman Nate Koenig] said, ‘We’re not going to leave without going to the tournament,’ ” said Holmes, an All-Conference selection. “We pushed each other and we pushed our teammates to get it done. We wanted to experience what the girls experienced last year.”

After the women lost their NCAA opener to Muhlenberg last March, the rising seniors went to Donohue and asked him to upgrade their non-conference schedule. Holmes and Co. asked the same of Howes. Both groups wanted to better prepared if this opportunity arose.

“This year has been more than I could have imagined,” said Woerner, who averages 16. 9 points and 6.5 rebounds, the latter second on the team behind fellow senior and four-year starter Katarina Owunna. “Our entire starting five was back so we have great chemistry and the ability to stay calm in tough situations.”

Owunna, a Nigerian-born, Pittsburgh-raised, 6-foot inside force with a 3.9 grade-point average in accounting, said the Cardinals “are looking for some redemption” after being a “little scared” in last year’s NCAAs.

“We accomplished our first goal, but now we have the navigation set to Atlanta,” Holmes said, referring to the men’s Division III title game.

The women are aiming for a similar trip to Holland, Mich. And with a combined 50-4 record, who’s to say each can’t win it all?

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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