The MAAC Basketball Tournament: It's More than Athletics!

Cheerleaders, Dance Team, and the Marist Band shine in the spotlight

A cold, crisp Thursday in the beginning of March finds a trio of Marist buses waiting outside the McCann Arena. One is loaded with cheerleaders and dance team members, while the other two are filled with the Marist College band and their various instruments. Their destination: Albany, New York, to meet up with the basketball teams for the opening rounds of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Basketball Tournament.

Marist College offers students many opportunities to travel and study abroad, providing students with unique opportunities to visit places born out of dreams and legends. Yet this trip is unique in two ways; it remains in the state of New York, and it is only for the basketball team's auxiliary units – cheer, dance, and band.

The affiliation with basketball traveling not only goes back to the primary functions of the cheer and dance squads but also to the very first performance of the Marist Band, with two trumpets and conductor Arthur Himmelberger on the drumset at Madison Square Garden. The tournament play, however, takes it up a level: the three groups travel to the tournament, which since 2015 has been hosted in Albany, New York, in order to cheer on the Men's and Women's Basketball teams to victory against other MAAC teams. The tournament runs between Thursday and Monday in the beginning of March.

The MAAC tournament is one of the most highly anticipated events for any cheer, dance, or band student. In addition to cheering on the basketball teams for the school, they also get to see their counterparts from other schools for the first time. This plays well for the band, as Marist's program is easily twice as large as the next-largest band in the tournament. The students also enjoy partaking in the superstitions of basketball lore, such as the waving of fingers at free-throws.

The MAAC tournament contains other festivities as well. A band exhibition, utilizing the seven college bands that had made the trip to Albany, occurred on Saturday. In addition to playing some of the arrangements each group usually plays, the bands took part in a joint performance, with all seven band programs playing Thriller and the John Cena theme, among others. Meanwhile, a "MAAC and Cheese" sampler festival was also held on Saturday, with students from all schools attending for the "eat and greet" mixer.

A win in the MAAC Tournament is more than just a matter of pride. The winner obtains an automatic entry into the NCAA tournament, whose first rounds occur two weeks after the MAAC. For a much smaller contingent of students (the NCAA limits the number of auxiliary members that can cheer on a team), their travels go far beyond the confines of the East Coast. Past locations of tournament play for Marist include Berkley, Baton Rouge, and Durham; the early arrivals in these cities, usually two or three days before the first game, give the spirit squads a chance to explore their locations. In 2014, the most recent NCAA tournament trip, the Women's first game was in Iowa City. From walking to the world's largest wooden nickel to dropping in on a square-dancing event, the students found many ways to immerse into the culture of the small farmland city.

In the event a team loses in the finals, there is still a strong shot of getting into the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which is one level below the NCAA tournament. This is a more regional focused tournament, with matchups based on proximity rather than ranking. This resulted in the first ever playoff game at McCann Arena, in 2015, for the Lady Foxes.

However, 2016 was not one of those years for Marist. Not only was the Men's team trounced in the opening match, but the Women's team was defeated by a hair to eventual tournament winner Iona, marking the end of a streak of MAAC Finals appearances going back to 2004. The Marist buses went home to Poughkeepsie that Sunday, and by Monday, the students who were present for the tournament were on campus, falling back into the daily routines of coursework.
At least, until the next time, the tournament rolls back around...

Written by Gregory Rycharski ‘16

*Note from the writer:  Over the past four years, I have been on many of these trips as a proud member of the Marist Band. It gave me much pleasure to write a description of a little-known excursion for a trio of club programs that regularly share a large spotlight under the hoops.

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