— No matter how many times you make the drive, whether it's the first time or the hundredth, you turn off I-91, travel a few miles west on the connector road. You look up and …
"It is the great statement," Quinnipiac athletic director Jack McDonald said Sunday after the women's basketball team clinched its first trip to the NCAA Tournament with a 72-33 rout of St. Francis in the NEC championship game. "It is the sleeping giant."
In recent years, the York Hill Campus seemingly has risen out of nowhere on the south-central Connecticut landscape. There is the Rocky Top Student Center. There are residence halls, townhouses, a parking garage, even an outdoor sand volleyball court. The jewel on the big hill is the TD Bank Sports Center, one arena for hockey, one for basketball.
And the hockey arena houses the No. 1 team in the nation. It's all fairly stunning.
McDonald's reference to the "Sleeping Giant," nearby Mount Carmel, is geological and athletic in nature. The Braintree, Mass., native was one of New England's great milers out of Boston College. His brother Gerry played for the Whalers. His nephew Colin plays for the Islanders. Heck, when he was a kid, he pumped gas at his father's station, Elm Street Mobil, for a guy named Jim Calhoun.
McDonald knows the New England landscape.
"When I took the job at Quinnipiac [18 years ago] and I went back to Boston," said McDonald, who been AD at Denver, "Their brows would wrinkle. 'Quinnipiac? Where is it? How do you say it? Is it Division I or Division II?' When [he interviewed for the job] and we were in motion to build the building, going Division I, I had met [president] John Lahey, went home and said this place is a pretty special place. Even my family said 'Where's Quinnipiac?'
"Now, nobody says that anymore. I'm the luckiest AD on the planet. Our programs, the medical school, the law school, Now, people use the words 'up and coming.' It is one of the hottest schools, athletically, academically, career-wise in the region. And today, today is a great step."
St. Patrick's Day would be a great Sunday for McDonald. After the "Irish Eyes are Miling" run in Cheshire, he would watch the fans storm Lender Court in celebration. Three hours later, the fans went crazy as the Bobcats pulled the goalie in the closing moments, tied the final game of ECAC quarterfinal series against Cornell at 2 and won it 3-2 with 5:52 left in double overtime on a goal by Kevin Bui.
Most folks with a passing knowledge of sports know the line from "Field of Dreams." If you build it, he will come. This is more a matter of, if you build it, they will start to win.
"What happened here today is a tribute to John Lahey and the trustees, the vision they've had that athletics is a major part of the growth of university," McDonald said. "He saw it. After six years [the building opened January 2007], we're really starting to reap the benefits."
In her 18th season, women's coach Tricia Fabbri would win her first NEC tournament title in her last NEC game. The Bobcats are moving to the MAAC next season. They wiped out the Red Flash, whose 33 points were the fewest in NEC tournament history. The margin of victory was the largest. McDonald called her a "great coach," one who cares about her players, cares about academics.
"Watching Quinnipiac go up in the field of 64 [on Selection Monday] is my dream come true," Fabbri said. "As a player and a coach, I've never witnessed such a selfless group of young ladies."
As a mom, Fabbri had to do some emotional rehab with her daughter Carly after Lauralton Hall fell to Mercy on an incredible buzzer-beating three by Maria Wesleyj Saturday night in the state Class LL title game. Carly led Lauralton Hall with 20 points.
"Boy, that was a tough one to watch at the end," Tricia said. "The high and the low in a matter of 3.8 seconds was pretty incredible. … It actually got all my nerves out. I woke up pretty angry. I was ready to get back out on the court.
"Today women's basketball at Quinnipiac had its day. I said all year we're just trying to keep up with Rand Pecknold and the hockey team. It's great to go into the NCAAs side by side. It was John Lahey's vision to put an arena up here when a lot of people were scratching their heads. To accomplish this and be part of something bigger is fantastic."
One of the more fascinating stats wouldn't be found on the hockey or basketball score sheets. Over Lahey's 25-year tenure, the school's endowment has grown from $5 million to $279 million.
"When I came here, they made me a lot of promises, they seemed like great people and everything I had heard was positive," said Tom Moore, who left Calhoun as a top assistant at UConn to take the Quinnipiac men's basketball job in 2007. "But until you get here you're not sure they are going to follow through on their promises. It starts with John Lahey to [provost] Mark Thompson to Jack, everybody, they really want to be good in everything they do. They support our programs so well. We had a feeling this building would lead to some really good things, and it has.
"Men's and women's coaches sometimes don't get along. Tricia and I have a great relationship. Coach to coach, you always feel good when you see somebody put a lot into it, work at it for a lot of years and then finally have their moment. This is great."
Moore sat among 1,472 fans in the stands cheering on the women Sunday. He said he and Fabbri are ready for the night-to-night challenge of the step up to the MAAC.
"[The men] have got to get slightly better [talent]," Moore said. "We also have to make fewer mistakes recruiting. Every staff makes them, but for every five, you can make one, not two."
Quinnipiac will host the 2014 women's Frozen Four. Men's lacrosse, women's hockey, the Bobcats have been growing in a number of sports. It was Lahey's vision to build an arena on the hill. It was McDonald's vision to have two arenas on the hill. He wanted to have the common lobby, to enter at the concourse level, so you could look down to the field of play. He wanted the steepness, so it would hold the noise and the atmosphere. He had worked at BC before Denver and he began to see how BC hockey had to practice away from Conte Forum because of basketball shootarounds. Two arenas in one affords flexibility.
"We built this building at the right time," McDonald said. And then after looking around at the excitement, he looked out from under the gold T-shirt with a big shamrock that Quinnipiac handed out on St. Paddy's Day.
"We built this building for a night like tonight."