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St. Peter makes successful turnaround

The first team that John Dunne coached at St. Peter's won only five games in the 2006-07 season.

A year later, the Peacocks won six times.

"It was very frustrating," Dunne said. "Of course, you question yourself when you go through seasons like that, but it was never a question of whether you were playing the game the right way. You just wanted to win so badly, but when you're losing, you start to micromanage everything. You wonder about the day-to-day routines, whether you're practicing long enough."

Well, something clicked.

Because, after a 2011 MAAC tournament title, the Peacocks (20-13) are getting ready to face Purdue (25-7) in the opening round of the Southwest Regional in Chicago on Friday.

But the road wasn't easy for this small New Jersey school, with a smaller budget, that plays in the shadows of the more recognizable New York City-area programs.

The 2007-08 team, Dunne's first true recruiting class, featured kids such as Ryan Bacon, Nick Leon and Wesley Jenkins, a group of players who managed to defeat Rutgers at the Jersey City Armory early in the season and not much else.

In fact, during one stretch, those Peacocks lost 18 consecutive games.

"It was definitely tough," Bacon said. "We knew that we had the talent that could turn this program around. But after our freshman year, we all could have left, transferred, gone somewhere else."

Jenkins, a former all-state player at Bloomfield Tech, did have some pressure to leave after that 6-24 season.

"Everyone was in my ear about transferring," Jenkins said. "But I'm a loyal guy and I don't quit. I was going to stay no matter what. I came from a winning program. I never lost 18 straight games. But it would have been too easy for me to walk away. I'd have to sit out a year and not play, sit behind someone else for a while. I came to St. Peter's to play. I didn't want to leave. I figured you had to lose before you could win."

So, instead of bailing on the program, Jenkins, Bacon and Leon all stayed. They had faith in Dunne, a former Seton Hall assistant. They had faith in the program.

"The main reason why we stayed was our togetherness," Bacon said. "We stuck together and stuck it out."

The Peacocks showed improvement, winning 11 games the following season, and 16 a year ago.

With the core based around the team's senior leadership, there were high hopes entering this season.

However, those feelings were dampened considerably when Jenkins suffered what appeared to be a devastating knee injury. It looked as if the Peacocks' season was over before it started, losing the team's leading scorer from the past three seasons.

"A whole lot was going through my mind," Jenkins said. "When the doctor told me that my ACL was torn, I didn't know what to think. I called my mother and cried. I just wanted to be by myself."

Jenkins saw another doctor who recommended that he would not require season-ending reconstructive surgery; that he could get by with just a rigorous rehabilitation.

"I actually felt blessed to hear that news," Jenkins said. "I just had to keep rehabbing the knee to get it stronger."

When the season began in November, Jenkins was on the sideline and missed the first four games, three of which were losses. He returned to action in December, only to face adversity once again. Right before the Peacocks faced Rutgers in Piscataway, Jenkins re-injured the knee.

"The second time, I definitely thought it was over," Jenkins said. "The whole team thought it, as well."

However, Jenkins only suffered a hyperextension of the knee, which meant just a three-game absence.

"I dodged two bullets," Jenkins said. "I'm just blessed to still be playing."

During the course of the season, the Peacocks were defeated twice by Fairfield and Iona, but managed to somehow defeat both teams at MAAC tournament last week in Bridgeport, Conn.

The surprising run clinched the program's first MAAC title — and automatic bid — since 1995. It was then — after a 62-57 win over Iona in the final — that the transformation was complete.

And now, the Boilermakers.

"I'm not focused on how we match up with Purdue," Leon said. "They should be focused on how they match up with us."

Purdue, ranked No. 13 in the AP poll, finished in second place in the Big Ten, next to Ohio State, the No. 1 overall seed.

"I don't know much about Purdue, because my wife doesn't let me watch too much basketball at home," Dunne said. "But you can be rest assured that we'll know a lot before Friday."

For the kid who thought his season ended twice, there was no greater feeling.

"You have to have a story in your life," Jenkins said. "Everyone has to have a story. This is my story. We have one. The whole four years, the losing, getting hurt, it was all worth it. Everything happens for a reason. The bottom line is, we won."

And what about the young coach? What about the 40-year-old — in his first head coaching position — who thought he might have done the wrong thing in taking the job five years ago after his run with the Pirates ended, along with head coach Louis Orr?

For him, there are no words to describe the emotions.

"It was surreal, like was it really happening?" Dunne asked. "It was euphoria. I was so happy for these guys, so happy for St. Peter's College, the fans, the alumni.

"No question, I'm a happy man."