What's all that jazz about at Coast Guard? A new lease on the season

New London — The energy began running like a current through the kids who knew that Coach Jazz was en route. The celebration would not be complete without the whole family there, anyway. And so with each step Kevin Jaskiewicz took toward this classroom downstairs at Coast Guard Academy, his players got giddier.

He walked in to the party, as the old Carly Simon line goes, to the rhythmic chants of "Coach Jazz," only to be doused with water. Coach Jazz jumped around with his players, while his clothes got the Bill Parcells treatment, soaked and rumpled, awash in the joy of victory.

This was Saturday at Merriman Gym, where nearly 600 fans gathered to see whether the basketball season got to continue. The Bears, hot lately, nonetheless needed a win over Emerson to make the conference tournament. And they delivered a beauty, a 102-99 test of endurance, that even had Adm. Kelly high fiving in the stands.

The season lives on, into this week, where Coast Guard gets a rematch with Emerson, this time in Boston, in the quarterfinals of the New England Women's and Men's Conference tournament.

"Definitely the biggest win we've had here in my four years," senior Packy Witkowski said.

This was a very Coast Guard day. Specifically: An earnest celebration amid what otherwise might be considered a modest accomplishment. Except that it was hardly modest. At least not here.

The Bears moved to 11-13 overall and 6-8 in the league, numbers that would perhaps prompt other coaches to rent, not buy. But these numbers got Jaskiewicz wet clothes because it was done in a league with three nationally ranked teams, a school (Babson) that recently won the NCAA Division III national championship and amid a nonleague schedule that featured a road game at a Div. II school.

In Alaska.

"That was our 55th win in the last five years," Jaskiewicz said. "We are averaging 11 wins a year now which is really hard to do in a conference that has a minimum of three teams nationally ranked. The win just kind of solidifies the fact that we are making really good progress and that we can't just aren't competing on a local or regional level, but a national level as well."

Coast Guard was once 1-5 in the league, perhaps making its renaissance on the fly even more noteworthy. It's not like the players can focus solely on basketball. Coast Guard is about differential equations and military missions before shuffle cuts and pindowns. And yet, it's refreshing to see how sports marry all the concepts.

"I'd honestly argue that sports are the most applicable thing we can do as cadets here that'll translate into officership," Witkowski said. "This season has been a real struggle. There's real adversity you face throughout a season. It's up to you and how you are going to lead. How do you want to bring people together? How do you want to overcome things? The most applicable thing we do here. And on top of it, we have to manage it with school and military. The brotherhood we have here helps us get through it."

The specter of the finish line isn't exactly an underrated motivator, either. After the game, Jaskiewicz asked each senior (it was Senior Day) to address the rest of the locker room. Sean Graytok stole the show when he reminded his brothers to treasure the moments they had left together.

"We're not going to have many more opportunities to all be together like this in one room," he said.

And so practice, perhaps met at moments throughout the season with a sense of dread, never felt as good as it did Monday. The band got to say together for another day.

"We kept telling them earlier in the year that we were playing well and haven't been rewarded for it," Jaskiewicz said. "The quality of our play has gone up. We had been playing well. It was good, but not good enough to win. Our staff did a great job. We stay positive with them. We tell it like it is. We don't lie to them. Just keep grinding. They never get down. They just get back to practice the next day and keep going.

"I think Joe (assistant coach Joe Cyr) said the other day that it's about hope. The hope that tomorrow is the day we're going to turn it around."

Tomorrow arrived Saturday. An overdue celebration. A new lease on the season. Off to Emerson they go.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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