Tonawanda News — AMHERST — Tucked away in a building with an unassuming exterior — through a set of double doors, down a flight of stairs and then up a winding wheelchair ramp — is Lumsden Gymnasium: home to the Daemen College men’s basketball team.
The gym serves as a metaphor for the team’s place in the Western New York sports landscape. Currently in the midst of transitioning to the Division II level, Daemen set a school record on Feb. 13 with its 25th win of the season, but the accomplishment barely registered in the community.
Wildcats head coach Don Silveri, in his 24th season on the Daemen sidelines, is used to the lack of attention.
“I think we’re the best-kept secret in Western New York,” he said “We don’t get a lot of coverage, but the last 10 years or so we’ve been very successful.”
Daemen begins play today in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national championship tournament, and has to win three games in four days against some of the top competition the league has to offer to win a national championship.
Once the Wildcats become D-II official in the winter of 2015, they will be the only such college basketball team in the area, and Silveri’s vision will become a reality.
“As a former athletic director, I thought it would be a perfect fit for us to be the only NCAA Division II team in Western New York,” he said. “Once we decided, I had to make a decision as to whether I wanted to be the basketball coach or the athletic director, because the NCAA doesn’t let you do both — I chose to stay with basketball. (This) makes us unique.”
Daemen has a special connection to the North Tonawanda community, with associate head coach Mike Miranto on staff and forward Aaron Davis coming off the bench — both former Lumberjack standouts. Last summer the Wildcats brought on Tonawanda High School’s all-time leading scorer, Jesse Lalka, who is currently redshirting as he continues to recover from a broken left leg.
Miranto said that both Davis and Lalka are progressing since arriving on campus.
“Aaron has really established himself in his role off the bench. He brings the energy factor. He gives us a boost when he comes in,” Miranto said. “Jesse has come a long way. It was a struggle for him the first couple months, getting over that injury was more of a mental thing than it was physical. But the last couple of weeks I think he has really made some strides. To the point where he’s very competitive in drills.”
Silveri has been aggressive on the local recruiting trail. He believed that each player he’s brought in could help Daemen continue to have success, and he was right. Davis and Lalka are two of six local players that Silveri and Miranto have recruited the past few years.
The cornerstone of the program is perhaps junior Mark Coppola (Williamsville South), who Silveri said makes the team go.
The 5-foot-7 point guard is second all time in Section VI history in assists (683), and is on his way to becoming Daemen’s all-time leader in the same category. Silveri said Coppola is one of the pieces that make the Wildcats such a dynamic group.
“We have a little bit of everything on this team,” Silveri said. “The guy that gets the least amount of credit is probably Mark Coppola. He’s our leader. When I decided to recruit him everyone said he was too small, but try telling him that. He’s not too small, he’s a terrific leader and player.”
Senior Jim Regan (Nichols/Williamsville) has blossomed into a versatile, well-rounded player, Silveri said. He is leading the team with 29.1 minutes per game, and his 13.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game are both career-highs.
Davis is averaging 6.2 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in 13.9 minutes off the bench. Troy Nowak (Orchard Park) and Tom Escott (St. Joe’s/Amherst) are the other Western New Yorker’s on the team.
“It was a conscious decision to try and (get local players),” Silveri said. “I felt that there were good players in Western New York that could help us have a successful program. Obviously it’s worked out very well.”
Silveri also targeted the Rochester area in recent years and he said he lucked out with guard Casey Sheehan (Greece Athena H.S.) and center Gerald Beverly (Gates Chili H.S.). Silveri called Sheehan the most athletic guard he’s ever coached and said Beverly has made the quickest improvement he’s ever seen in a player from high school to college.
Sheehan said Daemen has been so successful because everyone has bought into the system.
“Everyone knows their role and everyone’s playing their heart out every day,” he said. “We’re always together, even out of practice. You’d think we would get sick of each other but even when we’re out of practice we’re always hanging out. … That’s a big thing how everyone is buying in. That’s why we are where we are, 25-5.”
Miranto said that the No. 3-seed Wildcats’ confidence level is at a season high headed into their first round matchup against No. 6-seed Apprentice School at 5 p.m. today.
“We got a little bit of swagger about us right now and it’s a good thing,” he said. “Our guys are confident going into each and every game, and that doesn’t just come from winning a lot — that helps — but these guys come and work every day in practice.”
Silveri said success in the tournament will mean they have to continue to play to their strengths: good defense and a fast transition.
All tournament games are available on the USCAA website and video links can be found at wildcats.daemen.edu.
Contact sports editor
Matt Parrino at 693-1000, ext. 4117, and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.