Saint Mary’s College of California is located in Moraga about 30 kilometres east of San Francisco. Yet for many Australian basketballers, Saint Mary’s has become a home away from home.
A small-scale school with a small town atmosphere, Saint Mary’s College is perhaps the perfect place for young Aussies to start their college career. Inside McKeon Pavilion, the home court of the Gaels, two familiar flags hang from the wall; the Australian flag and the iconic boxing kangaroo, both proudly displayed at one end behind the basket. The fans are more than aware of the school’s association with Aussie basketball, often chanting the quintessentially Australian ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi! Oi! Oi!’ after an Aussie player score.
The 2016/17 season will see a record 7 Aussies on the men’s team and a further 3 on the women’s side. With that in mind, the Saint Mary’s Australian connection seems like a planned recruiting strategy. However in the beginning, this could not be any further from the truth.
First it was Caporn
Winding back to the year 2000, a young point guard from Western Australia named Adam Caporn was looking to go to college. At the time, Australians attending college to play basketball wasn’t nearly as common as it is today. Caporn was playing at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), and was keen on venturing to the US to play college basketball. Then AIS head coach Frank Arsego and assistant coach Marty Clarke provided a young and talented Caporn with the help he needed to turn his dream into reality.
“Marty [Clarke] was someone I discussed my future with a lot, and offered good advice and was very supportive, as was the AIS head coach at the time, Frank Arsego,” explained Caporn in speaking with The Pick and Roll.
“My understanding is that the Saint Mary’s coaching staff heard about me because we played some games against touring colleges, and I don’t remember those coaches really being involved at all.”
Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett told the The Pick and Roll how Caporn landed a scholarship with the Gaels.
“Another college toured Australia and saw him play; one of their coaches told me about him and we followed up with Adam. We didn’t think it would lead to this sort of connection with Australian talent, however we figured it out pretty quick.”
Caporn was an academically minded young man, and this played a part in his decision to attend SMC.
“I wanted to study as well as play basketball, so I decided to pursue the collegiate path,” explained Caporn. “I wasn’t highly recruited and coach [Randy] Bennett was in his first year at Saint Mary’s. After a few short discussions with him and checking out the academics, I was on my way. From memory I probably had 3 schools to choose from, but it wasn’t a particularly long process and I made my decision without taking any visits.”
“Before attending, my knowledge about the school was very limited. I knew their conference because Aussies had played in it before. I looked into the academics and the location, but that was about it.”
In 2001, Caporn suited up for the Gaels in what proved to be the fire-starter for the Saint Mary’s-Australian relationship and the ‘Aussie Pipeline’ as it is now affectionately referred to. Like many Australian Saint Mary’s alumni that have since followed, Caporn spoke highly of his time on campus in Moraga.
“For me it was a great experience and had a really significant positive impact on my life,” said Caporn. “I had a terrific basketball experience, improved, and made life long friendships.”
Now the head coach of Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (CoE – formerly known as the AIS) based in Canberra, Caporn has come full circle, taking on the role of his former mentor Clarke. Finding himself n a role of influence, he is also now charged with the responsibility of nurturing the future stars of Australian basketball.
“I’m happy that the school [Saint Mary’s] has provided a positive platform and given other Aussies positive experiences,” added Caporn. “My role at the Centre of Excellence is to accelerate the athletes development and support them long term in the basketball journey.”
After Caporn’s success and positive experience during his first season with the Gaels, compatriot Daniel Kickert was convinced to make the move to Moraga to also play with the Gaels.
Kickert would carve out one of the most successful individual career’s of any Gael in their history, earning All-West Coast Conference (WCC) first team honours for three years in a row. He would finish his college career as the all-time leading scorer for the Gaels with 1,868 total points at that time.
“I was at the AIS with Adam Caporn, and he’d gone over there the year before I’d finished up at the institute [AIS],” explained Kickert in speaking with The Pick and Roll.
“From that process and familiarity with Saint Mary’s and Randy Bennett, he started recruiting me. I went over to the ‘states [USA] to do some recruiting visits, including Saint Mary’s. I just really liked everything about them; liked the school, liked the area they were in, and really liked what coach B [Bennett] was about.”
Playing under Bennett was a big influence in how ‘Kicks’ developed his efficient and effective outside shooting ability.
“For me it helped change the direction of my career a little bit,” shared Kickert.
“In Australia I was just an inside guy, playing basically as a center. I went over to Saint Mary’s and he started encouraging me to expand my game a little bit more; stepping out to shoot three’s, and have a bit more of an all-round game.”
“So for me it was huge. The development I had over those 4 years was massive. It really put me in a good position to start a professional career.”
Being one of the very first Aussies to play for the Gaels, Kickert spoke proudly of the Aussie pipeline that has flourished in Moraga.
“I’m stoked about it,” gushed Kickert, who was clearly still very passionate about the connection.
“Every time I go back there, coach Bennett always reminds me of it. It is a good feeling. Whenever I see him he comes back and says ‘you helped start this all off’, so its kind of nice for him to associate me with the beginning of all that. Because I go back there pretty much every year and see all the boys and train with them, its just good to see that its really taken off.”
“I was a novelty when I was there as the Australian, now its Australian flags everywhere, and everyone chanting all the Aussie chants, so it’s like a little Australian community there now.”
Kickert would go on to explain how he helped influence the next wave of Australian Gaels, including current Boomers and Spurs star Patty Mills.
“I remember back in the day I talked to Patty Mills a lot, about him going over there,” added Kickert.
“We were at a Boomers camp together when he was about 16. I remember showing him my highlight tapes of my previous two years and talking up Saint Mary’s obviously. Any chance I get really, I like to talk it up! With such a good reputation now, and everything they’ve done over the past few years, it speaks for itself.”
Mills leads Gaels to relevance
The success stories of Caporn and Kickert led to the Gaels securing three more Aussies soon after. Lucas Walker, Carlin Hughes and Ben Allen all made the journey to Moraga to further strengthen the connection with a country that was located on the other side of the world.
Although pursued by heavyweight schools in Utah, Wake Forest and Alabama, Patty Mills chose Saint Mary’s in November 2006.
Mills erupted onto the scene when he torched the nationally-ranked Oregon for 37 points in an upset win. With Mills at the helm, the Gaels became nationally relevant, challenging traditional WCC heavyweight and perennial NCAA tournament contender Gonzaga – a rivalry that has since grown fierce.
During Mills’ time at the Gaels, he led them to their first national ranking since 1989 and a long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament. He had a standout freshman year, being named WCC Newcomer of the Year and to the All-WCC first team; an outstanding achievement for a first year college player. Mills continued his stellar play the next season, again making the All-WCC first team while averaging 18.4 points, 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals per game.
Despite only spending two years at Saint Mary’s, Mills made his presence felt in a huge way. He was crucial in further developing and promoting the Aussie connection with his school, with Saint Mary’s games broadcast live in Australia on subscription television.
After declaring for the NBA Draft early, Mills was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2009. Finding his way to the San Antonio Spurs, he would also become an NBA champion. Such was the influence Mills had on his 2 years in Moraga, in February 2015, Saint Mary’s retired Mills’ famous number 13 jersey, and will be long revered as one of the great Saint Mary’s players.
With the departure of Patty Mills to the NBA the point guard position at the Gaels was up for grabs at the start of 09/10 season. Three new Aussie freshman joined the Gaels in Jorden Page, Mitchell Young and none other than Matthew Dellavedova. Dellavedova or ‘Delly’ as he’s affectionately known, stepped up to the plate and started all 34 games that he appeared in. He made an immediate impact in his freshman year, averaging 12.1 points and 4.5 assists.
The legend of ‘Delly’ only continued to grow with the young Aussie improving in his sophomore season on his way to being named an All-WCC first team member, while improving his scoring and assist output. As a junior, Delly again increased his scoring to 15.5 points per game and led the WCC in assists with 6.4. The 2011/12 season led to many accolades for the Maryborough local. Delly was named as the WCC Player of the Year, he was placed on the watch list for the Naismith award, and was named a final five selection for the Bob Cousy award, which is given to the top point guard in the nation. Dellavedova also became the first Gael to be named to the Academic All-American team.
Dellavedova’s senior year was just as impressive. Mirroring his junior year efforts, he was nominated for the Naismith and Bob Cousy awards once again. During his senior year, Delly pulled off this famous game winner against BYU.
Dellavedova’s achievements at Saint Mary’s are almost too long to list, as he leads a staggering nine different individual records at the school. He overtook Kickert as the all-time leading scorer for the Gaels with 1,933 points. He also has the record for the most assists, 3-pointers made and games played just to name a few.
If Mills’ success enshrined Saint Mary’s in Aussie basketball folklore, then Dellavedova’s success cemented it, with both making it to the NBA.
The two Aussie guards are proud alumni of Saint Mary’s, with Dellavedova joining Mills as an NBA champion. The Gaels remain extremely proud of both Aussies’ achievements after retiring Dellavedova’s number four jersey in February 2014. The Gaels keep close tabs on the Aussie Boomers as well, with the back court for the national team consisting of the legendary duo.
Gaels women turn on the tap
The growth of Aussie talent in the Saint Mary’s program extended to the women as well, with Louella Tomlinson the first Australian woman to play for the Gaels.
After joining the Gaels in in 2007, Tomlinson went on to boast an extremely successful college career, named All-WCC first team on 3 occasions. In 2011 she became the all-time leading scorer for Saint Mary’s while also adding a WCC Defensive Player of the Year award to her name.
Kate Gaze, a niece of Australian Boomers legend Andrew Gaze, also forged a successful career with the Gaels, scoring over 1,000 points in her career. Lauren Nicholson recently wrapped up a decorated career in Moraga too. She was named as a fourth team All-American by the College Sports Madness website, averaging 17.6 points per game in her junior year.
For this upcoming season, there are three Australian women on the Saint Mary’s roster; junior Carly Turner, sophomore Megan McKay, and freshman Jasmine Forcadilla. Their on-court success and profile will ensure many more follow in their footsteps in future.
On the sidelines
The huge Australian growth on the court at Saint Mary’s has also led to an Aussie presence on the coaching staff too. Caporn was an assistant coach from 2010 to 2014, while his former mentor Clarke joined the Gaels as an assistant coach in 2013 and remains on staff. Caporn has since gone on to become a head coach at the Centre of Excellence and described his coaching tenure at Saint Mary’s as a positive experience.
“My experience coaching at the school was great,” explained Caporn.
“Coach Bennett put a lot of faith in me and I learned a lot working with great staff, and had the opportunity to coach some very special players, which always makes coaching a lot of fun.”
Australian former NBL player David Patrick also spent time on the Gael’s coaching staff prior to his roles at LSU and now TCU. Patrick came to Saint Mary’s in 2006, spending a year as the director of basketball operations. He was an assistant coach in Moraga from 2007-2010 and played a big role in furthering the ‘Aussie pipeline’ at Saint Mary’s.
Marty Clarke is entering his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Gaels. Clarke has experience coaching at the AIS and for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL. Clarke not only helps to mentor the current crop of young Aussies at Saint Mary’s, but he also helped past recruits such as Caporn, Kickert, Mills and Dellavedova gain scholarships with the Gaels through his role at the AIS.
Head coach Randy Bennett spoke to ESPN about the flourishing Aussie connection.
“It’s the 15th year in a row we’ve had a kid from Australia on our team, so whatever that is — a pipeline, a partnership — it’s a big part of our program,” explained Bennett.
“Everyone who has come over — I think we’re on our 18th right now — they’ve had good careers,” Bennett said. “They’re not all pros like Delly and Patty, but they all fit. They had a lot to do with the culture of our program, which is pretty good right now. They’ve had their fingerprints all over that.”
The pipeline is gushing
The Aussie connection with Saint Mary’s is at an all-time high, with a record 7 men and a further 3 women featuring on the rosters for 2016/17.
Incoming freshman Jock Perry and Tanner Krebs are looking to make an impact in their first season in the college system after successful junior careers in Australia. Meanwhile, sophomores Kyle Clark and Jordan Hunter are looking to build on their freshman years and take on a more significant role.
6’11 center Jock Landale made serious inroads last season and will be expected to play a key role at both ends in the paint. Emmett Naar will be hoping to continue his momentum from last season when he made the jump from 6.5 points per game in his freshman year to 14 points per contest in his sophomore campaign. He started all 35 games last season and was named to the All-WCC first team, with his 223 assists matching Dellavedova’s record for the most in a single season. Naar will again take on the play making duties and will keep defenses honest with his deadly three-point shooting.
Dane Pineau will also be looking to build off a successful campaign in 2015/16 after taking a leap forward in his junior year. Averaging just 14.3 minutes per game in his sophomore year, Pineau played 26.8 minutes per contest last season, averaging 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds. Pineau will look to help lead the team in his senior year and finish his college career strongly.
Saint Mary’s had a strong 2015/16 season finishing with a record of 29-6 and qualifying atop the WCC conference. Unfortunately they lost to Gonzaga in the WCC championship game and failed to win their way through to the NCAA tournament. The Gaels will have to put last season’s disappointing finish behind them, as they attempt to make it back to the NCAA tournament, which they haven’t competed in since 2013.
Regardless, with 10 Aussies split between the Men’s and Women’s rosters, the Aussie connection with the school is stronger than ever.
“‘Tapping’ into Australian talent is a key to our success, it’s a part of our program now” said coach Bennett.
Saint Mary’s holds a significant importance to Australian basketball. In recent years the college has become a genuinely favoured destination for young Australian players. If you’re looking for a college team to get behind for the upcoming season, Saint Mary’s is an obvious choice.