If you’re looking for a real Cinderella team, look no further than Niagra

The month of March is over, and its passing means the changing of the seasons, in sports and otherwise.
College basketball has crowned its champion. College hockey will do so on Saturday. And as the Cinderellas went waltzing home near midnight, they ushered in the baseball season, where 162 games — and massive economic differentials — eliminate pretenders and dreamers.
Despite all attempts to market the NCAA basketball tournament as a buzzer-beating, heart-stopping, anything-can-happen fiesta, the pale truth showed through.
As in baseball, the huge economic gulf between the haves and the have-nots in college basketball has left what was once the most exciting event in sports just another bloated cash cow.
Look at this year’s Final Four. Who’s supposed to be the underdog? Even those who finished near the bottom in their office pools picked the Spartans to win. Florida? Please. their coach looks like a used car salesman from hell.
I can hear the Dick Vitale wanna-be’s right now. “What about Wisconsin,” they whine.
It’s impossible to root for the team responsible for a 19-17 halftime score at a Final Four game.
For those who had the pleasure to see it, however, there was one amazing Cinderella story this March. No, there weren’t catchy theme songs, hysterical announcers or $6 billion in television revenue at stake.
This Cinderella story needs none of that. It stands alone, as a tale of what can be accomplished by those with nothing to lose and everything they ever dared to gain.
To find this year’s Cinderella you have to travel northeast, all the way up to Niagara Falls, N.Y., on the Canadian border. There, wedged between Canadian and East Coast hockey powers, is where the Niagara University Purple Eagles were born three years ago.
They had no arena, no locker rooms, no weight room, and no one who thought they would even compete in the foreseeable future. They also had no players who were recruited by any other Division I school.
Not one.
What they did have was coach Blaise MacDonald. MacDonald, a captain at RIT during his playing days, was one of those guys who always seemed to play better than his physical limitations allowed. He evidently has a knack for recognizing that same quality in others.
All the Eagles did this season, their first with a full Division I schedule, was beat everyone who got in their way. They beat Maine, a Frozen Four team. They beat Colorado College. They beat nearly everyone.
They won their league, the CHA, in handy fashion. They also won the postseason tournament. But the CHA, as a newer conference, has no automatic bids to the 12-team NCAA tournament. So the Eagles did what they were capable of doing, but were still left wondering right up until the end of the selection show.
People scoffed at the idea of the Purple Eagles being one of the best teams in the land. Minnesota coach Don Lucia, knowing his team was out of consideration, lobbied for Minnesota State to get a spot instead.
They were given the daunting task of facing New Hampshire, an established school from the perennially powerful Hockey East. UNH had been ranked first in the nation for much of the season.
Niagara never even flinched.
Led by the stellar goaltending of Greg Gardner, and by near-perfect play by his 14 fellow seniors on the team, the Eagles took an early lead and never looked back, stunning the Wildcats 3-1.
And though they were beaten the next day by North Dakota, coach MacDonald and his crew were the story of the weekend, and indeed, the story of college sports this season.
After the first game, Gardner was asked what this win accomplished for the fledgling hockey program at a tiny Jesuit school with an enrollment of under 3,000.
“I hope a few more people know who Niagara is now,” he replied.
Fair enough, Greg. Just who is Niagara?
“It’s a dream place. It’s a place where dreams can come true. All these other schools, their legends are behind them. With us, the legends and the history are all in front of us.”

Josh Linehan covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]