March Madness comes to life for SNHU's Stys
MANCHESTER - The little kid from Hooksett climbed to the highest row of seats at Southern New Hampshire University and was swept up by the excitement. The SNHU Fieldhouse was packed. Players dunked as music blared throughout the gym. The public address announcer introduced the players, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.
The kid, Michael Stys, was 7 years old and watching Midnight Madness.
SNHU, formerly known as New Hampshire College, had yet to begin its season but the place was electric. The Penmen, it seemed, were in the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament every season in the 1990s. They were the biggest show in town.
"I remember climbing up to the top row and sitting in the rafters. The place was sold out for a practice," said Stys, a junior guard and team captain for the NCAA-bound Penmen of 2012-13. "That was my introduction to college basketball."
Stys was back in gym and enjoying the Penmen life on Thursday as his team prepared for the NCAA tourney. Sixth-ranked SNHU (19-10), riding a six-game winning streak, plays third-seeded Assumption (20-7) in the East Regional quarterfinals at noon.
Stys, a Manchester Central graduate, played two seasons at the University of New Haven before returning to the Queen City in hopes of leading the Penmen to glory. He grew up a few miles from the SNHU Fieldhouse and has played hundreds of pickup games here.
"I'm definitely comfortable. There's a different kind of basketball culture here in Manchester. We're all closely knit," said Stys, who has started all 19 games and averaged 11.9 points per contest. "When I decided to transfer (from New Haven), I knew it would be a good situation. Now we're getting ready for the NCAA Tournament. Nobody would have guessed we'd be in this position."
The NCAA tournament returns to SNHU for the first time since 1997 - and the Penmen can thank St. Anselm College. The second-seeded Hawks (23-5) are serving as host of the regional. (The SNHU Fieldhouse offers more seating than St. A's Stoutenburgh Gym.) In the 1990s alone, the NCAA held a Division II regional at SNHU five times, including three times in four years - 1992, '93 and '95.
Stys sat out last season (per NCAA transfer guidelines) and was named captain before playing in a game for the Penmen. In Saturday's Northeast-10 championship game at Franklin Pierce University, Stys (18 points) played with much-needed toughness and swagger in an 85-74 win.
"He set the tone. He's been doing that all year," SNHU coach Stan Spirou said. "We'd been looking for that on-court leader in the past three or four years, somebody that brings a toughness and understanding of the game. That's why I named him captain along with (point guard) C.J. Marriro before the season. They're both great leaders and kids follow them. C.J's a little more vocal. Michael leads by example and says something when it's needed."
Stys, as a kid, tagged along with older brother Ryan at basketball courts throughout the city. Ryan also starred at Central, playing for coach Doc Wheeler, and became a captain at the University of Hartford. Sister Lauren was a soccer captain at Siena. Athletic ability, drive and leadership skills are family traits.
"We went through some adversity and had some tough patches like all teams this season," said Mike Stys, who is 22. "People could have gone in different directions, but we grew tighter as a group. I think it's a credit to the coaching staff and the high character of the guys on this team."