The tale of the Carroll College Saints and the national tournament is an up-and-down roller coaster.
Carroll College has advanced to its second consecutive NAIA tournament, and will take the court on Wednesday in Kansas City, facing off against Mount Mercy of Iowa.
While the Saints have made the tournament in consecutive seasons before, advancing to consecutive tournaments in 2001-03 and then again from ’05-08, it has been nine years since the Saints built a new streak.
And the Saints have gone through two head coaches since then, departing from legendary Gary Turcott and his high-bar of success – marching the Saints to seven national tournament appearances and the school’s best finish in its history with a visit to the NAIA semifinals -- to Brandon Veltri’s four-year run as head coach. Carroll made one national tournament appearance in 2011 under Veltri.
As the Saints continue their ascension to being an annual contender at the NAIA tournament, Carroll works to rewrite its overall average tournament record.
Dr. Carson Cunningham, in his fourth season at Carroll, owns a 2-1 record at the Big Dance. Cunningham’s squad made noise last season, knocking off No. 1 seed LSU-Alexandria to advance to the quarterfinals, a feat the Saints had not accomplished since 2006.
While the present and future look bright, the past is less flattering.
The Saints are 9-10 in the NAIA national tournament, with a 5-5 record in the first round, dating back to its first appearance in 1966.
In that game, according to an Associated Press clipping from March 10, 1966, the Saints fell to Grambling, “the tall tigers from Louisiana outshot the cold Saints from Helena, Mont.” Johnny Comeaux’s 33 points outdid Carroll’s Jim Mallard, who finished with a team-high 29 points.
The Saints had won their first game of the 1966 tournament, with its victory over Bethune-Cookman 91-88. That would be the end of their inaugural run, however, as Grambling ousted the Saints, 95-86.
It would take 39 years to secure another national tournament win.
As the Turcott years saw the Saints rise, usually cracking the Top 25 rankings and piling up Frontier wins along the way, the Saints did not win their second tournament game until 2006.
Four times, in 1997, 2001, 02 and 03, the Saints bowed out in the first round of the tournament. Carroll's second tournament appearance in 1997 was short-lived, as Carroll took on No. 9 Southeastern Oklahoma and fell 90-53.
Carroll’s 2001 return trip came with another a much closer 72-69 loss to Oklahoma Baptist, but the reality remained: The Saints were 0-2 under Turcott. Oklahoma Baptist advanced to the semifinals that season.
That elusive second win, and first under Turcott, would not come the next season either, as the Saints made a return trip to Kansas City. Carroll fell 68-61 to Science & Arts of Oklahoma. Science & Arts received 17 points from Theron Jackson to combat 20 points from Jeff Mason of the Saints. The usually steady Kirk Stiles went 0 for 9 and Gary Lynch went 4 of 20 from the field, as the Saints as a team went 23 of 66 total.
That pesky defense and knack for scoring powered Science & Arts to a national championship that season.
(There was something about those Oklahoma schools.)
As the Saints made a third consecutive trip to the NAIA tournament in 2003, their fortunes did not improve, though the Saints were relieved to see a team from a state outside of the Sooner State.
“This is the fourth time we’ve been back there and the first time we haven’t met a team from the Conference in the first round,” Turcott told the Great Falls Tribune in 2002. “That’s the best conference in the nation … lots of (NCAA) Division I bouncebacks … there are some years where their best teams could compete for the Big Sky title.”
The Saints fought No. 13 Lee of Tennessee to a 68-58 loss, and another first-round exit. Lee went on to a semifinals appearance before dropping to Georgetown.
The Saints streak of consecutive national tournament appearances broke in 2004, but the Saints returned in 2005. That wasn’t the only thing that changed for the Saints that season. Behind All-tournament play from guard Jeff Hays of Missoula and All-American play from forward Andy Brown, the Saints gave Turcott his first national tournament win … and his second, and his third, advancing to the NAIA’s semifinals before falling to John Brown of Arkansas, 73-60. John Brown went on to win the tournament.
Some of the key pieces from that team fueled the Saints to another run a season later in 2006. Carroll once again picked up a pair of wins before exiting the tournament in a quarterfinals loss to Texas Wesleyan, 73-40. Texas Wesleyan went on to win the title that season.
Hays once again took All-Tournament honors, leading a senior-laden team. Turcott told a newspaper in 2006, “Jeff Hays was the only (player) who made it this year and last year. When you think of it, that’s pretty good.”
The ire of losing to would-be national champions had the Saints wondering when they would break through.
“Maybe one of these years it will be our turn,” Turcott said in 2006.
Turcott never got any closer as the men’s basketball coach.
The Saints failed to make the tournament in 2007, before returning in 2008, but experienced an entirely too familiar fate: A loss in the first round, this time to Robert Morris of Illinois, 82-73 in overtime.
The Saints failed to make the tournament in Turcott’s last season as the head coach in 2008. Veltri took over the program in the 2008-09 season, and the Saints struggled to gain traction until the team broke through and made the national tournament in 2011. Veltri’s lone appearance generated a 1-1 record at the tournament, defeating Union 69-63 in the first round before falling to Rogers State of Oklahoma 66-45 in the second round.
Cunningham took over the program in 2013 and last season returned the Saints to the postseason, where the Saints took down No. 1 LSU-Alexandria en route to a quarterfinals appearance.
His efficient, highly-skilled Saints have befuddled opponents, landing the school a No. 1-seed this season, the highest in team history since the NAIA has switched to its current format. Carroll under Cunningham is poised to continue its success.
Wednesday, the Saints will see if they can continue to make history.