Jan. 18—GORHAM — Rob Sanicola's office at the University of Southern Maine athletic department is well situated.
On one side of him is Ed Flaherty, the legendary baseball coach with multiple national NCAA Division III championships on his resume. To the other side is softball coach Sarah Jamo, who led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament last spring.
Sanicola, hired in late summer to replace Karl Henrikson as USM's men's basketball coach after Henrikson retired, has leaned on and learned from them — along with women's basketball coach Samantha Norris — as much as he can. He came to USM from St. Joseph's College in Standish, where he had spent the last 26 years, first as a student-athlete and later as a coach.
At St. Joe's, his men's basketball teams won 275 games in 18 years and made the playoffs each year. USM's men's basketball program has had three winning seasons in the last 20 full seasons (the Huskies went 2-4 in last winter's COVID-shortened season). But Sanicola believes this program can join the other elite, national-caliber programs USM has.
"We want to be at the national level," he said, sitting in his sparsely decorated office at USM. "That's the expectations I have set with these players. Those are the conversations we have with the families of players we are recruiting.
"You look at the other programs here. They have competed at the national level. Why can't we?"
Early indications are that the Huskies are starting to believe they can. They are 6-6, and will resume their Little East Conference schedule Wednesday night at UMass-Boston, after dealing with COVID-related postponements earlier this month. Six wins are the most the Huskies have had at their semester break since they went 6-3 in 2012-13. That year they advanced to the LEC semifinals.
"We've just got to get playing," said Sanicola. "We've been practicing, and that's the fun part. But the game is really what teaches you. So we need to play some games because that's going to let us know what we need to work on."
It has been a whirlwind five months for Sanicola. After Henrikson retired in June, Sanicola reached out to the USM administration to let them know he was interested. At 44, he felt if he ever was going to make a move, this was the time. And USM wouldn't disrupt his family life. He, his wife Audrey and their sons Robbie, 10, and Charlie, 8, live in Windham, about 6 miles from the USM campus. At St. Joe's, they lived about 6.3 miles away from the campus.
"St. Joe's was all I knew," said Sanicola. "And early on in the process, there was that hesitation: what would it be like somewhere else? But knowing what the ceiling is here and how I can grow professionally and personally, and not having to uproot my family, this was something I had to try."
Al Bean, the athletic director at USM, said the school had over 60 applicants for the position, including head coaches and assistant coaches from all NCAA levels. "And Rob emerged from what I consider a very strong candidate pool," said Bean.
But Sanicola wasn't just going to leave St. Joe's, where he had once also served as associate athletic director, for just any place. It was after he met with Bean that he knew this was where he wanted to be. "I was sold on the vision they have," said Sanicola. "And so far it's been everything they said it would be."
The vision? Quite simple, said Bean, "We want to be as good as we can at everything we do."
And not just athletically, where the Huskies annually send track and wrestling athletes to national championships as well as competing nationally in many team sports. The goal, said Bean, is to help the USM student-athletes become all they can be academically, athletically and in life. They stress community service. "We try to build the student so that they can be successful," said Bean.
So Sanicola left St. Joe's. He greeted his new players in September, introduced them to his offense (which doesn't feature any plays, just basic principles) and hit the ground running. He hasn't stopped.
Of course, he said, there was a learning curve. "There's a learning curve with every new coach," he said. But the players have responded. They believe in his system and they believe the future is bright.
Cody Hawes, a junior guard from Hermon, said Sanicola has brought a passion to the game.
"He's really showed how much he wants to be here," said Hawes, who is averaging 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.4 assist and leads the team with 13 steals and 11 blocked shots. "It's tough when you leave the situation he was at. To come to a new spot like this, I'm sure it was nerve-racking.
"But he's shown how dedicated he is to the school and the players and it's been really good for the program."
It took a little time for the players to adjust to the new offense. But once they began to understand its basic concept, which is essentially read and react, they embraced it.
"From the jump, you could tell he had a lot of trust in his players," said Hawes. "And as a player that's something you want from your coach. He allows us to be free with how we play as long as we stay true to the principles. ... I know a lot of guys like to play it. It's fun to play."
"It's added an excitement to the game," said sophomore guard Trevor Ward, from West Park, Florida, who is averaging 11.1 points. "The way he conducts practices, games, the new system. It's added an excitement for sure."
The Huskies have five players averaging double figures. Hawes said the offense allows everyone to have a chance to succeed. Asked how he, a 6-foot-3 guard, is second on the team in rebounds, Hawes said he owes it to his teammates who are doing their job and blocking opponents out. He leads in assists, but that's only because his teammates are hitting their shots.
Sanicola noted the one thing that surprised him is the closeness of the players. They embrace each other on and off the court.
"The program is definitely heading in the right direction," said Ward. "Our team is like no other. We're a family and we're together. When you can stay together like that, there's not much that can stop you."
Asked if he has a timeline for success, Sanicola said, "The timeline is today. That's not to sound like Bill Belichick. But ... all you can do is control what you do today. If we set that timeline and our players understand that, and they just worry about today, we're going to look back in two months and say, 'Wow we accomplished a lot.' "
Success, he added, will come slowly. The wins will come. He wants to see progress each day.
"Brick by brick," said Sanicola. "If we can kind of do it methodically, I know that's not sexy, but that's the only way to have sustained excellence. If you look everywhere, it's those teams or those programs or those organizations that focus on the minutiae that do have that. It's not sexy. It's boring. But it's fun. Fun is in the details. Fun is in the things no one wants to do."