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Syracuse Stallions: Three wins away from a championship

The national championship is tonight, but the ABA’s Elite 8 starts Thursday.

Syracuse Stallions

Let’s get one thing clear right away: this ain’t the Syracuse Orange. And for that matter, at this point, that’s probably a good thing.

That’s because the Syracuse Stallions, the city’s American Basketball Association franchise, are still playing basketball. Their season, which starts at the end of October, culminates this year in St. Louis with the “Elite 8” on Thursday, followed by the semi-finals and finals in the consecutive days. Meaning, the Stallions, in their first year of existence, are just a few more victories away from taking home a national championship, something Syracuse’s men’s and women’s teams obviously didn’t achieve this past year.

“I’m proud of our team,” Stallions team president Mike Sugamosto said over the phone on Saturday morning. “We get up and down the court quickly. Our guys bought in, and they’ve dealt with challenges. They all trust in what we’re doing.”

Now some of you might have some questions about this potential title team. Maybe you’re thinking something like, a Syracuse basketball team could win the ABA title?

Well, yes, but this isn’t the ABA of the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, or even Jackie Moon.

This version of the league came about in 2000, and it is now a collection of semi-professional players competing on teams divided up by divisions that are spread throughout the country. So Syracuse, in the Northeast Division, only plays against opponents from New York and Pennsylvania during the regular season.

Another question you might have is: how did the Stallions go from beating teams around here to having a chance at a nationwide championship?

The easy answer is that this team is good. Like really good. The Stallions have a 23-1 record and were the top-ranked ABA team in the country for a good portion of the season. Syracuse, however, did lose late in the year to Binghamton, which ultimately forced it to play an ABA team based out of Worcester, Massachusetts last weekend in what amounted to a play-in game. The Stallions took down the 78’s, 139-129, in Syracuse to move on to the Elite 8 in St. Louis against an opponent to be determined (San Francisco City Cats at 5:30 p.m. est Thursday). There are 12 teams total that will be playing, all representing the several divisions of the league.

(You can watch Syracuse’s game(s) via the league’s live-stream feed or through the Stallions’ Facebook page.)

Syracuse Stallions

You did, by the way, read that final score correctly. It might seem like some alien form of basketball for any Orange fan used to their teams trying to rock-fight to victories. “Scoreboards have room for that many numbers?” Oh yeah they do, especially in the ABA where rules are modified to reward defense and speed up tempo. Triple-digits for both teams is a common occurrence. Actually, the Stallions put up 175 points in a win over Pottstown in January and a whopping 179 in a victory at Elmira earlier in the season. Needless to write, this is a team full of play-makers.

“There’s a surplus of talent in this area (Central New York), D1, D2, D3 players all playing in rec leagues,” Sugamosto said about how the front office went about filling its roster. “We had an open tryout in the fall, we invited everyone.”

Syracuse v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Over 140 people showed up for those tryouts and only 12 made the team. One of the biggest names...okay, okay, the biggest name on the Stallions is former Orange big man Dajuan Coleman. The CNY native who suited up for Syracuse from 2012 through 2017 is averaging 15.6 points and just under ten rebounds this season.

“He’s been amazing. Our most well-recognized player,” said Sugamosto.

The team’s president marveled about Coleman’s commitment to the team. Sugamosto says the former D1 star, someone who was considered a top-20 recruit coming out of Jamesville-DeWitt High about seven years ago, hasn’t missed a game or even a practice all season long. This a player who was used to playing in front of a national television audience and 30,000 fans in person during his collegiate days.

In the ABA, it’s all about the love of the game.

“He’s been taking care of his body,” Sugamosto raved. “He’s been working out with Stan Kissel (former Director of Basketball Operations for Syracuse University) two to three times a week.”

Coleman battled injuries at Syracuse, but was fortunate enough to reach two Final Fours as a member of the Orange. Yet, he told that being a part of the Stallions and reaching this version of an Elite Eight is “up there” in the rankings of his basketball feats.

And while Coleman’s contributions are clearly important, the Stallions also have Nick Perioli, a CNY high school legend who played college ball at SUNY Oswego and had a career playing professionally overseas. There’s also Chris Gilkes who poured in 33 points in Syracuse’s win over Worcester last Saturday. And Jamail Stanley leads the team in scoring (26 ppg) and is a former First Team All Atlantic Region honoree.

With a talented and mostly locally-grown roll-call, the Stallions have been able to do the nearly unthinkable: succeed in Syracuse where other semi-pro hoopsters have failed. Sugamosto is aware of the previous attempts and admits that he and his team have faced adversity in their first year together. Like how they “learned the hard way” to not book home games the same day Jim Boeheim’s teams play inside the Carrier Dome. That lesson was learned even though the Stallions don’t play in the Dome and their tip times were not near the Orange’s starts.

This ABA franchise has a different motto, a different mantra, compared to the other facsimiles which have come and gone. The Stallions don’t play inside some grandiose arena, a al the War Memorial. Instead they have played their home tilts at Manlius Pebble Hill School and other high school gyms. Sugamosto’s thinking is that the franchise isn’t trying to “get too big too fast.” The goal back in the fall is the same as now: “Build the fan base.”

What better way to get fans than to win, right?

The Stallions were able to make this trip to Missouri due to their talent on the court in winning 23 of 24 games so far. That’s key, but it wouldn’t matter without the backing of several local businesses that helped sponsor the trip. Plus, on game days this week (Thursday, and then potentially Friday and Saturday) the ABA itself takes care of team’s hotel and transportation costs, as well as meals.

Being an upstart from the middle of New York and having the cache to get sponsors and being able to count on per diem for a major road trip, earning the right to travel to St. Louis and play other teams from across the nation is a monumental victory. “It speaks volumes to the work we’ve all put in,” the team president said.

It’s a job for everyone involved that won’t end even when the season does, be that Thursday, Friday or in the championship on Saturday. That’s because, as in all sports, maybe more so at this level, there’s always next year. Even for champions.

“Oh, yeah, we’re 100 percent back next year,” Sugamosto confidently said.