Leading the Chase
Rochester hosts the nation’s largest and longest-running Division III basketball tournament.
By Ryan Whirty
During his senior year on the men’s basketball team, Adrian Smalls ’88 was chosen to represent his team with a speech at the banquet leading up to the Chase Scholarship Basketball Tournament.
Every season since 1966–67, the tourney had gathered the Rochester area’s Division III basketball teams to determine a de facto regional champion, and the Yellowjackets failed to win the title during Smalls’s first three years at Rochester.
“Not getting to a championship game didn’t sit well,” he says.
So Smalls was itching for a crown, and at the pretournament banquet in 1988, he let everyone know just how badly he wanted it—by guaranteeing a Yellowjackets victory.
Nearly 20 years later, Smalls, now a volunteer assistant basketball coach for the team, laughs when recalling his Joe Namath moment.
“Being 21, you say some pretty silly things,” says Smalls, an officer in the Rochester Police Department, where he is backgrounds and recruitment coordinator.
But, just like Namath’s New York Jets, the Yellowjackets made good on Smalls’s prediction and won one of Rochester’s record-tying eight Chase titles. Smalls did his part, earning tourney MVP honors. Looking back, it was a defining win for Smalls.
“It was pretty special,” he says. “It was one of my very proudest moments in my time in college athletics.”
For more than four decades, what started as the Monroe County Collegiate Basketball Tournament and has evolved into the JPMorgan Chase Scholarship Tournament has been providing players, coaches, and Rochester-area hoops fans with such moments. Now in its 42nd year, the event has become the largest and longest-running Division III basketball tourney in the country.
Games in the JPMorgan Chase Tournament rotate among the eight participating schools. For the 2007–08 edition, the semifinals and the finals will be held in Alexander Palestra in the Robert B. Goergen Athletic Center.
The women’s semifinal is scheduled for Thursday, January 10; the men’s semis are Friday, January 11.
Both the women’s and men’s finals will be held Saturday, January 12.
For more information, visit www.rochester.edu/athletics.
What’s the key to the Chase tournament’s success?
Tony Wells, executive director of the tournament and a former sports information director at Rochester, says two crucial factors contribute to the event’s longevity and growth. The first is a strong commitment from the schools involved.
Wells notes that all eight institutions have signed on through the 50th anniversary tournament in 2016, which gives the Chase long-term stability.
That dedication also guarantees that the tournament will continue to generate thousands of dollars in scholarship funding each year. Since the tourney became a fundraiser in 1983, ticket sales and program advertising have generated more than $200,000 for the schools’ general scholarship funds.
The second key, Wells says, is the involvement of the tournament’s corporate sponsor. JPMorgan Chase and its predecessors have sponsored the tournament since 1968–69, eventually becoming the tournament’s named sponsor.
“It’s not often that an event has the same corporate sponsor for 40 years,” Wells says. “It’s extraordinary.”
Randy Morien, a JPMorgan vice president who has served as the tournament chairman for 22 years, says the company continues to sponsor the event to support local colleges and student-athletes.
“The bank has developed a very special partnership with all of the participating colleges over the last 40-plus years,” he says. “This tournament allows the opportunity for the bank, colleges, and the community to showcase local D-III men’s and women’s basketball, which sometimes takes a back seat to D-I sports and professional sports.
“Unless you regularly attend local D-III basketball games, you really do not know the high quality and high level of basketball that these students-athletes play.”
When the men’s and women’s teams from eight area schools—Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, Nazareth College, St. John Fisher College, SUNY Brockport, Roberts Wesleyan College, Keuka College, and SUNY Geneseo—come together in January, they’ll display the best that Division III sports has to offer.
“It allows these eight teams to get together in one week and determine who is the best team in the Rochester area,” says tournament executive director Tony Wells. “There are definitely bragging rights on the line. That’s what makes the tournament so special, and that’s what draws crowds year in and year out.”
Men’s coach Mike Neer says his players rarely have to be reminded how important the Chase tournament is.
“The returning players certainly know it,” he says. “You don’t have to talk much about the tournament when it comes up. The kids sense it. When you win, the wins feel better, and when you lose, the losses sting more.”
At last year’s Chase tournament, there wasn’t much that stung the Yellowjackets—both the men’s and women’s teams won the tourney crowns.
Since Jim Scheible took over the coaching reins of the women’s team in 1999–2000, the Yellowjackets have won a record-tying four Chase titles. All four were earned in a five-year span from 2002–03 to 2006–07. Overall, the women have won 27 tourney games, the most since the women’s event was created in 1993–94.
Scheible says that in the months leading up to the tourney, each team must scout the other seven squads and prepare for every style of play those opponents will throw at it in January.
“You have to be mentally tough to do well (in the Chase),” Scheible says.
For the Rochester women, the tournament seems to be a harbinger for the rest of the season—in each of the four years the Yellowjackets have won the Chase, they’ve advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament later that year. When they didn’t win, in 2004–05, the team didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament.
“There is usually a direct correlation there,” Scheible says. “We feel that if we do well in the (Chase) tournament, it sets us up for a great season.”
On the men’s side, Neer has coached the Yellowjackets since Rochester entered the tournament in 1979 and has accumulated eight titles, the most of any Chase coach. Rochester also holds the tournament’s best all-time team winning percentage, 66 percent (51–26).
But for Neer, the tournament is about the players, especially those from the Rochester area who get to play in front of hometown crowds. He says the Chase helps his players gauge how good they are as a team by pitting them against three top-quality, non-conference foes in four days.
Like Scheible, Neer also notes that a team’s performance often foreshadows the outcome of the rest of its season.
“In many seasons, it’s an indicator in the middle of the season of whether we’re capable of playing and advancing to the post-season,” Neer says. “You have to handle different styles (of opponents), and it gives you some depth of understanding about what you have as a team on very little prep time.”
Overall, it all makes for one of the most prestigious and exciting Division III collegiate sports experiences in the country, an event that showcases Rochester-area basketball and gives eight colleges a chance to battle for bragging rights and to test their mettle for postseason play.
“We feel that in terms of Division III basketball, the schools in the Rochester area can compete on a national level,” says Smalls. “If you win the Chase tournament, people have to start looking at that team as a team that will emerge from this region to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
He then adds simply, “It’s great basketball.”
Ryan Whirty frequently writes about sports for Rochester Review.