By Andy Lipton
NEW YORK - The wonderful sportswriter John Feinstein took a trip this winter to the Rose Hill Gymnasium at Fordham University to watch its basketball team play.
Then in a loving remembrance, Feinstein wrote a story in the Washington Post on January 20 about his memories of a very special Fordham basketball team and season.
The 1970-71 Fordham team captured the imagination of New York City. A city that so loves basketball, a love affair that’s started in the 1930s when Ned Irish brought college basketball to Madison Square Garden. It was a Cinderella season. It’s hard to forget Cinderella.
Feinstein recalled how Fordham beat Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden that year, finished the regular season ranked ninth in the country and reached the sweet sixteen in the NCAA tournament with no player bigger than 6’5” and a 29-year old coach named Digger Phelps.
I had a personal interest in rooting for that 1970-71 Fordham team. One of its players, Bart Woytowicz, grew up in my Forest Hills neighborhood.
Two years older than me and much taller than me, I got to know Bart in the early and mid-1960s when I was in elementary school, as we both went to a summer recreation program at a local junior high, Halsey Junior High. Basketball, softball, whiffle ball, ping pong, pool tables, bumper pool. And I almost forgotdodge ball.
You never forget, when as a little kid, a friendly taller older kid who is a terrific athlete pays attention to you and is so nice to you. Bart was that older kid.
And today, the 1970-71 basketball season has a meaningful impact on Fordham University. Let me explain.
In the fall of 1970, a young married woman, 23-year old Cathy Rush became the basketball coach of Immaculata College, an all-girls Catholic school with an enrollment of less than 800 students, outside of Philadelphia.
Mrs. Rush was paid $450 her first year, the 1970-71 season. The team had to play all its games away from the school, as the school’s gym had burnt down two years earlier and would not be rebuilt until the 1971-72 season.
In her second season, the 1971-72 season, Coach Rush led her Immaculata team to the women’s national championship in college basketball. Philadelphia had found Cinderella too.
Coach Rush’s Immaculata basketball teams followed up that championship season with two more championships the next two seasons. Women’s college basketball was on the map nationally.
Following the three straight national championships, Rush’s teams made it to the national championship game the next two years. And that was followed up by a Final Four appearance in the 1976-77 season.
Coach Rush also ran a basketball camp for girls.
Coach Rush influenced the lives of countless girls and young women. She set an example that showed it was ok for a female to play basketball, to love the game, to play it competitively, to play it in college and against premiercompetition, and to have a career in coaching.
And maybe most importantly, Coach Cathy Rush, as a mother of two young children, was an example of a woman who could raise a family and have a career at the same time.
Like John Feinstein, I took a trip to Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus this winter to watch basketball. In my case it was in December. All the way from Queens. And it was to watch Fordham’s women’s basketball team.
At Rose Hill, I was on a beautiful sprawling campus in the Bronx, with long expanses of green lawns and buildings of gothic architecture, across the street from the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which sits next to the Bronx Zoo, two New York treasures that are as good as any, and enjoyed by thousands of people of all ages.
At Fordham I found a very well coached team, a pleasure to watch.
And I found a very experienced, accomplished and successful coach who has been a college basketball head coach for 31 years, Stephanie Gaitley.
She’s also a mother of three sons, the youngest now finishing high school, and a wife who met her future husband, a Philadelphian, on a basketball court at Villanova University while in college.
Gaitley played basketball at Villanova where she was an academic All-American her last season.
In my few interactions with her, she has been warm and welcoming.
It’s obvious – I was very late to the party.
Stephanie Gaitley was one of those countless girls influenced by Coach Cathy Rush.
Coach Gaitley, born and raised in Ocean City, NJ, started going to Coach Rush’s basketball camp in the eighth grade in the mid-1970s and went there for many years. Kids who went to her camp considered themselves Cathy Rush kids. Gaitley even babysat Rush’s kids. And Gaitley went to see Rush’s Immaculata teams play.
At the Fordham game I went to, against Niagara, Coach Gaitley’s players moved on offense, as did the ball. The ball was shared. They could shoot from the outside or drive to the hoop.
With junior forward G’mrice Davis, the team has a post player who is mobile, scores inside the paint, is the team’s leading rebounder and scorer, and among the nation’s leading rebounders.
The players were sure-handed receiving passes and holding the ball. They can handle a press and not get rattled. And scrappy. Not afraid to dive on the floor and they don’t backdown.
Coach Gaitley preaches defense and strong weak-side help on defense was evident.
Through 31 games, before the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, Fordham was ranked 19th in the nation and number one in the A-10 Conference in team defense, as measured by its limiting opposing teams to 55.6 points on average per game.
Coach Gaitley used her bench nicely. During the course of the season nine players averaged over 10 minutes a game.
And the players were supportive of each other. Players on the bench were engaged in the game, rooting for their teammates on the court and acknowledging them during timeouts and after substitutions.
Coach Gaitley’s record speaks for itself.
In 31 years as a college head coach her record is simply outstanding at 583–345.
She started her head coaching career at the University of Richmond, and has coached at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, LIU, and Monmouth University before coming to Fordham.
Coach Gaitley has been at Fordham six years with an excellent record of 119-75 and with an A-10 Tournament Championship in 2014 leading to an NCAA Tournament appearance. Three of her Fordham teams have been invited to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).
In late December after I saw Fordham play, their record was 9-4.
I came back to Rose Hill for the last regular season home game, Senior Day, against Dayton, who wound up tied for first place in the conference’s regular season and who went on to win the A-10 Tournament Championship.
I caught the second half of the game.
It was a special day for that team as they beat Dayton. And I was privileged to hear Coach Gaitley address her seniors and their families at the post-game reception.
The team’s record stands at 21-11. Their 11-5 regular season conference record, put them two games behind thetwo teams with the best conference records, Dayton and George Washington.
Fordham lost in the second round of the A-10 Tournamentto Saint Louis University.
But their season will continue Friday night, March 17against Georgetown in Washington, DC as the Fordham Rams were invited to play in the WNIT. The team is excited.
Last year’s season was a trying one as the Rams finished 14-17 overall, (8-8 in their conference), after three consecutive seasons of winning more than 20 games and being invited to the WNIT twice and the NCAA tournament once.
Going into this season, there were challenges to getting back to a 20-win season, with a number of new players, the loss to injury of a post-player, and adjusting to more guard oriented play, with some players having to adjust to new positions.
After a good start, they lost four games in a row to teams in their conference. But the team turned it around. Coach Gaitley slowed down the pace of play and in a difficult decision made a change in the starting lineup down the stretch.
Coach Gaitley is very proud of this team.
Speaking with Coach Gaitley and senior guard Hannah Missry the other day, I spent a little time talking about style of play and preparation for the WNIT.
But the themes that stuck out were the concept of team - the players and coaches responsibilities among each other and how their actions impact each other - and individual growth to prepare student-athletes for life after basketball and college.
Coach Gaitley is so proud of her three seniors, Hannah Missry, Danielle Burns, and Danielle Padavano, who not only finished their undergraduate degrees in three years, but will also receive graduate degrees at the end of their four years.
An amazing accomplishment for any student let alone a student-athlete at a school that prides itself on academic excellence.
And when you speak to Hannah Missry, you get the sense that Coach Gaitley is a teacher who will not let a teaching moment go by unfulfilled. Very detailed oriented who will let players know if they are not acknowledging their teammates or not helping on defense.
Coach Gaitley talks to her players being engaged while sitting on the bench. She talks to her team about body language and what it communicates. How you treat people matters not just on a basketball team, but in and for the rest of your life.
Georgetown, Fordham’s opponent Friday night is also a Catholic school known for academic excellence.
Georgetown coach Natasha Adair is in her third season as coach at Georgetown and is in her second straight WNIT. Like Coach Gaitley, Coach Adair cares about the whole person in her student-athletes.
This year the Fordham women’s basketball team played Notre Dame at South Bend. Now retired from coaching for many years, the long-time men’s basketball coach at Notre Dame, Digger Phelps, spoke to the Fordham team.
The same Digger Phelps who coached at Fordham that glorious 1970-71 season. He told the team how much he enjoyed his year at Fordham and how thankful they should be to be part of Fordham.
There are plenty of banners that hang from the top of the gym at Rose Hill. Coach Gaitley is responsible for four of them and there will shortly be a fifth due to this year’s WNIT appearance. At practice, Missry looks up at those banners.
The celebration of the 1970-71 Men’s Fordham team will have another chapter this April, as Bart Woytowicz will be inducted into the Fordham Athletic Hall of Fame.
The 2016-17 Fordham women’s basketball team has a right to be proud of its season As the years go by the team might even celebrate this season. And there still might be celebrations to come this season.