CLEVELAND: During his nine years at the University of Akron, Keith Dambrot might have never faced such a challenge.
Strategically, mentally and emotionally, the March 7 arrest of junior Alex Abreu on felony drug charges eight days before the Zips’ first game in the Mid-American Conference Tournament left Dambrot searching for answers.
What to do without Abreu at point guard, with only freshman Carmelo Betancourt having played the position? With the regular season wrapping up the day after Abreu’s arrest, Dambrot couldn’t teach Betancourt how to dribble against the league’s best, how to handle the pressure of the postseason in a week.
So he used junior forward Nick Harney as Betancourt’s backup and nullified potential trouble in Saturday’s championship matchup with Ohio senior point guard D.J. Cooper by rotating big men on him.
What to do to keep his Zips from giving up, lost in a fog of depression, their NCAA hopes seemingly gone?
“Everybody’s been so upset and sad,” Becky Kretzer, mother of UA freshman Jake Kretzer, said Tuesday. “They’ve had such a great year and such high hopes. Not just the physical aspect of [Abreu] being gone, but the emotional aspect on the team, everybody’s got their heads down. You hate to see that after they’ve come so far.”
How to get the Zips to put aside those emotions, channel their energy, and realize that their dream was still attainable?
“The last two days, I finally felt we were going to be all right,” Dambrot said. “The last day, we practiced well, we got our juice back. It was like a scarecrow coming to life.”
When the MAC Tournament championship ended Saturday night with a 65-46 victory over Ohio at Quicken Loans Arena and the Zips were headed to next week’s NCAA Tournament, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Dambrot cried.
But those feelings came Friday night, after the Zips got past Kent State in the semifinals.
“I was a little better today than yesterday. I had a hard time yesterday,” Dambrot said, when asked if he’d gotten choked up in the waning minutes. “The residue from the other thing [Abreu] affected me. I was so proud of how our guys battled back in the last four minutes [against KSU]. Tonight I just sniffed that NCAA Tournament, so I wasn’t really that emotional.”
Talking with Abreu
It had to be the most gut-wrenching yet most satisfying week in Dambrot’s 15 seasons as a collegiate coach. He said it included two two-hour talks with Abreu and another of about the same length with Abreu’s mother, Ada Vazquez.
“Most people who know me [know] if I err on any side, it’s going to be on the side of young people, of compassion versus hardness,” Dambrot said. “I’m going to do everything possible to see that he cleans up because he has a lot of great attributes.”
Dambrot now turns his focus to the Zips’ third NCAA Tournament appearance in the past five years and the fourth in school history, another coming in 1986. They have never won a game. They will learn their fate tonight at Rhodes Arena, where they will watch the CBS selection show that begins at 6 p.m. (Doors open at 5.)
“This is the best one by far,” Dambrot said of the NCAA trip. “The first one was great. To do what we did under the circumstances, it can’t even compare. It was an unbelievable effort by our players.
“It’s just unreal how resilient how everybody in the program was, our secretary … we have a group of people who care about each other.”
It might have been the most masterful game coached by Dambrot and the most inspired performance by one of his teams, especially in a jaw-dropping second half when the Zips outscored the Bobcats 39-17.
“He’s the best coach in America,” UA senior forward Chauncey Gilliam proclaimed after Dambrot took the Zips to the MAC Tournament final for the seventh consecutive year. “We had some tough adversity last week and we were able to fight through. He did everything in his power to help us. Mentally we were ready to play this tournament.”
UA director of athletics Tom Wistrcill echoed Gilliam’s sentiments.
“He knows when to pull he knows when to push. He’s the best coach in America,” Wistrcill said.
Change in persona
Dambrot said Friday he had to change his coaching persona, sending more “valentines and less hatred.”
Gilliam verified that Saturday. He said Dambrot was even low-key at halftime against Ohio as UA trailed 29-26.
“He hasn’t yelled all weekend,” Gilliam said. “He was very compassionate with us about our situation and he knew we could make it.”
That doesn’t mean Dambrot will be all “valentines” from now on.
“You’ve got to have some hot sauce sometime, I know that,” Dambrot said. “You’ve got to know when to love ’em, you’ve got to know when to massage ’em, you’ve got to know when to kick ’em. Our guys are tough guys. They showed it.”
Apparently, he will be alternately kicking and massaging the Zips for some time. Those who worry that Dambrot, 54, will now consider offers from other schools may take heart in what he said after perhaps his greatest personal triumph.
“I’m too damn old to leave,” he said. “This is where all my friends and family are.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to push for more for his program.
“I’ve got a big mouth now,” he said. “This is my school where I went and my mother was a professor and I won’t accept anything except greatness. When I level off, I’m going to quit. We’ve got to jump through that window that’s open right now and try to take that next step.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.