BENNINGTON, VT. >> When Brandon Casella took the leap of faith to attend Southern Vermont College three years ago, all the Pittsfield native knew was that the Mountaineers had a new basketball coach and Casella had a spot on the team.
Now, Casella is going dancing.
The Mountaineers (24-3) won the New England Collegiate Conference last weekend, topping Becker College 74-72 to book a spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament.
SVC's first-round game is Friday at Tufts University, where the Mountaineers will meet the host Jumbos at 7:30 p.m. The winner of that game will play either Franklin and Marshall or Skidmore on Saturday.
Casella can hardly believe that this journey has him playing for a national championship.
"From year one to now ... it's just been building up and up and up and we've never looked back," Casella, a St. Joseph graduate in his junior year at SVC, said. "Going from 17-12 or whatever our first year, to winning the NECC and going to the NCAA tournament, that's a kid's dream. I never thought I'd be part of that, to be honest with you."
Yet here Casella is, ready to put on his dancing shoes.
The opponent is also a fitting one for an SVC program that, despite not being in the league, always finds itself in big games against NESCAC opponents.
Two of SVC's biggest wins since Dan Engelstad took over came against Williams College — including one win over the Duncan Robinson-led team from two seasons ago. SVC also handed Bates a loss this year after being beaten by them the year before, and the Mountaineers' 16-game winning streak going into today started after they picked up a loss at Middlebury.
"It's going to be another good challenge for us," Casella said of the game. "We've played the Williams', played the Bates', we came out on top there. Middlebury, we obviously lost to Middlebury, but we are prepared enough to know that we can play with these teams, and we've shown it over the last few years."
For Engelstad, the trip to the tournament feels even sweeter after he watched his team rally from last year's heartbreaking ending — the Mountaineers lost to Regis, 74-72, in the NECC championship game and did not make the tournament as an at-large team.
"To get over that hump, and see guys like Brandon Casella and Antoine White guys that have been part of the program, to have them experience that and cut the net down in their own gym, it was really rewarding for me as a coach to sit back and see all the fruits of their labor really shine through."
Casella is one of four players to be with Engelstad for all three years. The others are seniors White and DeShawn Hamlet, and junior Davante Jordan. Casella said it was a unique experience getting to see the evolution of the Mountaineers and their coach.
"As the years have gone on, we've just gotten more guys, better guys, and we've just grown stronger and stronger as the years have gone on," Casella said. "It's been cool being here since year one, being able to see where we've progressed as a team and [Engelstad] with his coaching."
The Mountaineers will have their hands full with the Jumbos. Tufts went 20-6 on the season and made the NESCAC semifinals, topping Williams College in the quarterfinals before falling to Amherst College — one of four NESCAC teams, including Tufts, that made the tournament.
"[Tufts] presents a lot of challenges," Engelstad said. "They are very big, they have really good shooters on the perimeter and they have a point guard who can get in the paint. They average 86 points for a reason."
Not that the Mountaineers are worried, per se. After a dominant regular season the Mountaineers are ready to take the next step.
"I think where our team is right now and the experience we've got, I think we have no problem doing what we have to do to try and win the game," Casella said.
And that means that Casella can keep on dancing, at least for one more day.
Contact Geoff Smith at 413-496-6254.