The 2005-06 Skyhawks became the first team in program history to advance out of the regionals and made it to the Final Four.
BY Jim Fenton
EASTON – The Stonehill College men's basket ball team broke new ground for the program 10 years ago this week.
The Skyhawks made their first appearance in the Elite Eight in the NCAA Division 2 tournament on March 22, 2006 and advanced to the na tional semifinal round before a special season came to an end.
It was a magical ride for Stonehill, which was led by four seniors who went from winning a combined 15 games as freshman and sophomores to setting the program record with 27 victories their last year.
The Skyhawks played in front of jam-packed crowds during the Northeast Regional at Merkert Gym and had a loyal following for the nation al tourney, which took place at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.
"It was fun, something I'll never forget,'' said Chris Kraus, who was the point guard on that team and is now the head coach at Stonehill. "The experience and having the school come support us was just great.
"I remember just going through it with that group of guys that became family. They become your brothers and family for life. Everyone just cares and supports each other. We're at each other's wed dings. We're still close.''
Current head coach Chris Kraus was a senior on the 2006 squad.
Said Sean Nelson, a third- team All-Northeast-10 Con ference selection: "I just re member the fun we had. All the memories are of the guys before the games, after the games, the games being so much fun. We had a very, very tight team. I don't think I real ly grasped that we went to the Final Four until probably the following year watching other teams play. It didn't dawn me on how special a team that we had until then.''
Kraus was an assistant on the 2012 team that also ad vanced to the Final Four, and he is bringing the 2015-16 Skyhawks to the Elite Eight in Frisco, Texas this week. Stonehill opens against West Liberty University of West Virginia Wednesday after noon.
More memories will be made, just like they were a decade ago with Kraus, named to the All-NE-10 third team, Marquis Taylor, a first- team all-conference pick, Sean Nelson, a third-team All-NE- 10 selection, and Mike Lauri cella leading the way as se niors.
Junior Lance Clarke was a starter with Nick Smith, the Northeast-10 freshman of the year, Soap Toun, Matt Hall and Colin Scanlon coming off the bench.
The Skyhawks defeated UMass-Lowell in the regional final, then knocked off Tar leton State of Texas, 69-59, in the national quarterfinal round before losing to eventual champion Winona State of Minnesota, 83-73, a night lat er.
March Madness took over the Stonehill campus in a big way that year.
"It was unbelievable,'' said Lauricella, now a lawyer who lives in Connecticut. "We were lucky when we went out to Springfield that it was so close to campus that they could take bus loads out there.
"At Stonehill, we were playing in front of a packed gym, standing room only with the games delayed five or 10 minutes so they could get peo ple in. It was a great experi ence and something we all remember fondly. The community rallied around us. It was something special.''
The four seniors were on a team that was 6-20 their first year on cam pus and 9-17 as sopho mores when David McLaughlin of Brockton took over as head coach midway through.
Things turned around in the 2004-05 season when Stonehill won 20 games and the Skyhawks were ready to take off a year later.
"We kind of went how (the seniors) went,'' said McLaughlin, now an associate head coach at Northeastern University.
"They set the tone of how we practiced, how we prepared for other teams and how we were going to play with an edge in our games.
We formed this identity and the campus got ignited as we began the postseason.
"The atmosphere on cam pus was amazing. There's re ally not another word for it. It caught fire and the campus was electrified.
"I just remember those games at home, there was not one inch of space in Merkert Gymnasium. The crowds, it felt like the old wooden bleachers were going to fall down.''
When they made the trip down the Massachusetts Turn pike as one of eight Division 2 teams still playing, the Sky hawks knocked off Tarleton, then built a 15-point lead in the first half against Winona.
Stonehill was unable to hold off Winona, which went on to win two of three na tional titles after rallying past the Sky hawks in the second half.
It was a painful defeat for Stonehill as it came so close to reaching the national championship game.
"I think about it all the time,'' said Taylor.
"I've actually never watched the game. I can't. It's heart wrenching knowing that we were that close. Even right now I don't even know what we did wrong.''
Said Kraus: "It still haunts me. Every time I get on the floor, I still have some flash backs and moments to some stuff that you wish would have went the other way. But the one thing looking back now, we knew we were good enough to win the national championship that year. Un fortunately the ball didn't bounce the right way for us.
"But the overall experi ence of what we accomplished is memorable and we always look back on and tell stories about. To have those moments as a team is something we'll never forget.''
The Skyhawks did have a near-miss against a Winona team that went to three straight national title games, but it couldn't spoil what they did that winter.
"I think everybody still thinks if we had seven good minutes of basketball, we could have played for a na tional championship,'' said Lauricella. "One or two things go different, it could have been a different outcome.
"But they were a phenom enal team. It's not like we lost to a team we definitely should have beat. They went on a three-year stretch and won something like 60-plus games in a row. We gave it every thing we had. It stings, but we lost knowing we did gave what we had.''
The loss was painful, but the memories of the entire ride are sweet for the Skyhawks.
"You think more of the Tarleton game,'' said McLaughlin. "If you look at the starting fives from both groups, they were bigger and stronger at every positions.
"We had the crowd. We showed the power of disci pline, execution and high character young men and playing together.
"It took me 18 months to watch the Winona game, but I probably watched the Tarleton game 10 times.''
Jim Fenton may be reached at jfenton@enter prisenews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JFenton_ent.