Short-Order Cooking

Johnson & Wales whips up a hoops treat from scratch.

Geniesse says his aggressive recruiting plan was hampered by not having a single athletic scholarship to give his players, several of whom had collected scholarships at other schools. (J&W's entire yearly basketball budget is $30,000.) But he offered potential players a good education, and he promised them that the team he was gathering would get them plenty of run eventually. "I told them, ŒYou'll make your money on the back end,'" he says.

Some of the players, particularly those whose grand dreams of basketball fame had been scaled back over the years, had trouble adjusting to J&W's tiny size and low visibility. "You always want to play for schools you see on TV," says Whitfield, who at one time had designs on attending Georgetown or the University of Connecticut. "At first I thought the NAIA was beneath me."

"We're kind of off the radar," adds Gomez.

Mike Gomez (right) and Jason Davis gain tournament 
experience.
Mike Gomez (right) and Jason Davis gain tournament experience.

In mid-January, with the team at 12-11, Geniesse quit, explaining without going into detail that he had to leave for personal reasons. The job was taken over by Campbell, who at the time was already coaching the women's basketball team. For three exhausting weeks in the beginning of the year, he kept both jobs, sleeping on the school's single training table instead of driving back to his Wheat Ridge home. The team finished out the season 14-14.

The Wildcats left for Missouri and the national tournament on March 8. The following day, they played St. Vincent College -- at 24-4, the number-three seed. The Wildcats, meanwhile, arrived with only seven players. One hadn't met academic requirements. The Stingley brothers, from Monument -- Will, who is 6' 5"; and Seth, who is 6' 7" -- had had a brother die suddenly several weeks earlier and were in no shape to play basketball.

After the first quarter, during which the teams played evenly, St. Vincent's began to pull away. The second half wasn't really all that close, and despite some bright spots -- five of the Wildcats' seven players scored in the double digits -- Johnson & Wales lost its first-round game by fourteen points. The dream season was over.

Despite the team's lingering glow, it's not at all evident that this is the beginning of a basketball powerhouse. With Geniesse gone, the team already felt like it was playing a phantom season. Itinerant players always looking for a better game, neither Whitfield nor Gomez is sure he'll return to play another year. Campbell, meanwhile, has been unable to schedule a single home game for next season -- a problem he blames on the team's tiny playing quarters.

Still, even if it was only a flash, Johnson & Wales's stunning breakout has already paid dividends. Assistant athletic director Pancoe says he's been deluged with calls from prospective players who've heard about the team's sunny season. "They're coming out of the woodwork now," he boasts.

Campbell, who says he'll be back next year, is more circumspect. "We get letters from kids every day who want to play," he admits. But, he adds, "The problem with that is you get every 5' 8" player out there who wants to play. Just give me one seven-footer. Just one."

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