EMMITSBURG — Prior to the start of Tuesday’s practice, Mount St. Mary’s coach Dan Engelstad was seated inside of Memorial Gymnasium on campus and talking about all of the things he was hoping to avoid discussing for at least another week or two of this men’s basketball season.
But the future beckoned sooner than he or any of the Mountaineers would have liked.
For the first time since late February 2012, the Mount did not qualify for the Northeast Conference Tournament, a humbling reality that was sealed by Saturday’s 81-58 loss to Bryant in Smithfield, Rhode Island.
A run of six consecutive trips to the postseason, including NCAA tournament appearances in 2014 and ‘17, was snapped as Mount St. Mary’s fell to 8-21 overall and 5-11 in the NEC.
Now, in the rare instance when the Mountaineers already know the date and time their season will end, they will host Fairleigh Dickson at 7 p.m. tonight at Knott Arena and then travel to play St. Francis Brooklyn at 4 p.m. Saturday before heading into an offseason focused on taking the next step that Engelstad so often references.
“This spring is a big spring for us,” he said. “We have got to set the tone, get dialed in and excited about the mission going forward.”
The mission going forward, as clearly stated by Engelstad and his players, is for Mount St. Mary’s to reclaim its status as an NEC heavyweight and compete for the league championship annually.
It was a mission that was always going to be an exceptionally tall order during this particular season with Engelstad in his first season as a Division I head coach and without a junior or senior on the roster for most of the season.
Hired in early May at the tail end of the recruiting process after the sudden departure of previous coach Jamion Christian, Engelstad, a Bethesda native, did well to assemble the roster that he did. It was simply too young to win.
Throughout the season, as the Mountaineers inconsistently bounced from one game to the next, it became clear they were missing a player who had done it before, someone like a Junior Robinson or a Chris Wray or a Greg Alexander who had played on an NEC championship team before and experienced the battles of the NCAA tournament.
With those three seniors on the roster last season, a Mount St. Mary’s team that was nearly as young and inexperienced finished 18-14 overall and 12-6 in the NEC, which was good for the No. 2 seed in the league tournament.
The team this season did not have the same luxury of senior leadership.
“[The inexperience] showed early. We lost a lot of close games,” said freshman guard Damian Chong Qui, a Baltimore native who walked onto the team. “I think [winning] games like that just comes with experience.”
Mount St. Mary’s dropped its first nine game of the season, while acquitting itself well and staying competitive until the final stages against teams like Maryland and St. John’s.
The Mountaineers broke through for their first win on Dec. 15 at Knott Arena against Division III Wilson, which marked the start of a three-game winning streak. They also beat American by a point on the road and hammered Division III St. Mary’s (Maryland) at home in the span of a week.
Later in the season, there were wins over NEC stalwarts Wagner and LIU Brooklyn and Robert Morris.
“The resiliency our guys showed,” Engelstad said. “Even after some of the tough moments, they would come back to practice and have a high spirit and work to get better at it.”
On an individual level, the Mount’s young talent was recognized repeatedly by the league. In 11 of 16 weeks, a Mount player took home the NEC Rookie of the Week award, including freshman guard Vado Morse, who received the honor six times.
Overall, five different Mount St. Mary’s players were named the NEC Rookie of the Week, which is a league record.
“We’ve come a long way,” Morse said.
While the season didn’t lack positive and encouraging moments, they just did not happen consistently enough to result in a postseason berth.
“It was a great learning experience for everybody,” Engelstad said. “I feel like it was a season where we all got to find out what it takes to win at this level. We went through a lot of ups and downs. We learned a lot, not just as a team, but individually.
“I think the last month of basketball, the Bryant game [Saturday] excluded, was our best month of basketball. I think we have taken some big strides forward. And we are not going to let one poor performance [Saturday] define where we are headed as a program.”