No one deserves St. Francis' success this season more than Devin Sweetney, who for the past three years carried the burden of being a terrific player on a horrible basketball team.
Try to imagine Sweetney's frustration. He's the second-best player - behind only Darshan Luckey - to wear a Red Flash uniform since the Mike Iuzzolino and Joe Anderson days in 1991. Yet entering this season, his teams had gone 20-67 and never even advanced to the Northeast Conference Tournament.
A polite, respectful, friendly young man, Sweetney will play the final home game of his career this afternoon at DeGol Arena. He'll have the added incentive of knowing that a victory over Sacred Heart will all but guarantee his team a berth in the eight-team NEC playoffs.
Sweetney has always put up good numbers - he's scored 1,444 points and grabbed 722 rebounds - but as any competitor can attest, personal achievements don't mean much when the team struggles.
"Frustration definitely comes to mind," Sweetney said of his SFU career. "Failure. The fact that three out of my four years here I was the captain and I knew I was the best player, I looked at it like it was me.
"I play so hard and work so hard, and I just couldn't understand. I used to pray at night and ask God to let us stick together and give me the strength and courage to lead this team."
The saying goes that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and Sweetney found that out two months ago.
During a practice Dec. 15, the senior forward lost his cool and screamed an expletive at head coach Don Friday. That's the ultimate no-no in sports, and Friday had no choice but to suspend his star player for two games.
It could have spelled disaster for the Red Flash. Instead, it served as a key turning point in the season, thanks to a mutual level of respect and understanding by both Sweetney and his coach.
"One thing about Coach Friday that I love is he challenges me on and off the court," Sweetney said. "I respect Coach Friday, and I'm glad that I had an opportunity to play for a guy as great as Don Friday is as a person.
"He really forced me - not helped me grow up - but he forced me to grow up and be a man and leader that I know I can be and the basketball player I know I can be."
To Sweetney's credit, he immediately realized the error of his ways and apologized to his coach.
"Within two minutes of that practice being over, he was in my office and we talked about it," Friday said. "The direct quote from him was, 'Coach, my mom didn't raise that kid, and I do not want to be that kind of kid, and I'm sorry.'"
Equally important, Friday didn't make too much of the situation and understood why Sweetney reacted the way he did.
"The kid lost his composure for three nanoseconds, and what was done was done," Friday said. "When you're pushing kids' buttons and you're trying to challenge kids and get them going, guess what, it's not always going to be clean cut.
"Unfortunately, the kid made one bad decision, but I can also talk to you about the 90 great decisions he's made in the last 18 months with me."
Sweetney called the incident "the pivotal point in my basketball career here at St. Francis" and said it helped him grow up as a person and as a player.
"All teams and all families, they butt heads at times, but that doesn't mean we don't love one another," Sweetney said. "Me and Coach Friday have an undeniable respect for one another, and I love him. Sometimes in the heat of the battle things like that happen, and I've learned my lesson."
Flash forward two months to another Sweetney story, this one filled with tears. The good kind.
St. Francis had lost 23 consecutive road games before winning at Bryant nine days ago. The streak may have been over, but it was far from an impressive win since the Bulldogs were 0-24 at the time.
Two days later, however, the Flash posted a very good road victory at Central Connecticut State, winning in the final minute. Once again Sweetney couldn't control his emotions, but this time it was more touching as he cried tears of joy in the locker room.
"In my four-year career here, it never felt so good winning a game," Sweetney said.
The victory kept the Flash in the hunt for an NEC playoff berth, and Sweetney said it's such a great feeling "just to play for something in February."
"You look at Devin - and I see him as a strong, confident kid - he was in the corner in tears," Friday said.
The second-year coach has only been around Sweetney for 18 months, and in those tears he saw perfectly that his star player has his priorities in order.
"I've never had a chance to play in the conference tournament," Sweetney said. "I've always put up numbers, but that really doesn't mean much to me."
Even when it was depressing watching St. Francis lose game after game the past three years, it's always been enjoyable watching Sweetney play.
Friday has done a tremendous job getting the program back to respectability so quickly, and it's a good thing he did because it would have been a shame to see Sweetney go his entire career without enjoying even the slightest bit of success.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.