University of Hartford Men’s Basketball coach John Gallagher, and the 2020-21 team, were celebrated Wednesday at West Hartford Town Hall.
By Ronni Newton
Prompted by energetic University of Hartford men’s basketball coach John Gallagher, on a count of three, the crowd gathered at West Hartford Town Hall Wednesday afternoon shouted “Neighborhood!” to close out a celebration that included proclamations from Mayor Shari Cantor and Gov. Ned Lamont.
An estimated 150 supporters turned out on the warm and sunny afternoon to honor members of what has become known as the #neighborhood team – who were also in attendance – and their coaches.
The 2020-21 team, with a 15-9 record, was the winningest in the University of Hartford’s 37-year history in Division I, and as winner of the America East Championship earned the first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
West Hartford Town Council member Liam Sweeney was one of the organizers of the event. He, along with Council member Chris Williams, attended the Hartford Hawks Basketball Camp when he was growing up. The camp, “was started by none other than West Hartford legend and former coach and Hall of Famer Jack Phelan, and I just want everyone to keep him in mind today,” Sweeney said. Phelan, who died suddenly last summer, was a 1972 graduate of Northwest Catholic High School where he was a star basketball player, was the head coach of the University of Hartford team who led the program from Division II to Division I in 1984.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful celebration of a group of students that really worked so hard … that accomplished so much in a season, and the support that they’ve received from the university, their neighborhood town that they’re a part of – and we share them with Hartford – and the leadership of coach Gallagher has really been so special,” Cantor said.
The town is so proud of the team – and also thankful for the valuable partnership between the University of Hartford and the Town of West Hartford.
In her proclamation, which can be viewed below, Mayor Shari Cantor declared April 28, 2021 “University of Hartford Men’s Basketball Day” in West Hartford.
State Rep. Jillian Gilchrest of West Hartford and Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, whose districts both include parts of the University of Hartford campus, also attended and spoke to the crowd, offering their congratulations to the team on their success.
Ritter also noted that last week the state Bond Commission approved $350,000 “to remodel, rehabilitate, and rename the basketball court at Elizabeth Park where Jack Phelan played for so many years as a child … the Jack Phelan Basketball Court.”
“You guys are amazing scholar-athletes who give us extraordinary pride,” Lamont said. He said he cheered the team on every step of the way, and that support and pride extended throughout the state.
“What I love about sports is everybody rowing in the same direction, everybody being a team, everybody having the same goal, everybody standing up every day knowing that if you work together as one you can accomplish so much,” Lamont said. “And coach, that’s what you got this team doing, that’s what this amazing team did.”
Gallagher credited his mentor, Phelan. “Jack Phelan took us to Division I in 1984-85, and he’s looking down from heaven on us today, and he’s celebrating with us. He’s the reason we are Division I; I truly believe that.”
Gallagher also thanked the families and friends who showed their support for this team. “You are the neighborhood. … You are the reason next year we will be, in my opinion, the best team we ever assembled,” he said.
“I love this team. I love the student body. I love the school. I truly love this place. We are going to do it next year. I don’t know how but we are going to be back in the NCAA Tournament next year and I thank you for your support,” said Gallagher.
University of Hartford Director of Athletics Maria Feeley also spoke to the crowd, sharing some background information about each of the team members who played a key role in the season’s success. Only Traci Carter has graduated and will not be able to return next year.
The team has also been serving the community, and has held down a team GPA of 3.23, Feeley said.
Although the Hawks lost in the the first round to eventual national champion Baylor, earning the trip to the “Big Dance” was an exciting achievement, and Wednesday’s ceremony was filled with positivity about the team’s success and optimism for the future, with barely a mention of discussions about any potential downgrade of the university’s athletics program from Division I to Division III based on the results of a study, recently revealed in a breaking news story by WTNH’s Dennis House.
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