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‘Incredible task, incredible opportunity’: Stetson basketball gets set for NCAA matchup with UConn

Basketball players and cheerleaders cheer.
Joe Byrnes
The Stetson University men's basketball team, cheerleaders and fans roared in reaction the announcement that they'll play UConn in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Stetson University is in the NCAA tournament, taking on the University of Connecticut, the reigning national champions, in Brooklyn on Friday.

Stetson -- a university with about 2,500 undergraduates based in DeLand -- wrapped up a week of anticipation Sunday evening with a watch party for the tournament selection show.

Before the announcement, the pep band played, the cheerleaders waved pom-poms, the Stetson-wearing mascot John B. high-fived Hatter fans in the crowded hall. And the University of Stetson basketball players sat in a half-circle in front of the stage, smiling, eager and ready for the news from CBS Sports.

It came right away -- the very first matchup of the night.

Stetson -- the 16 seed in the East -- will face No. 1 seed UConn on Friday. UConn is currently ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press.


The basics

Stetson University is a private institution based in DeLand, with other campuses in Tampa and Gulfport. It serves about 4,000 students, including 2,572 undergraduates. In U.S. News and World Report's most recent college rankings, Stetson is No. 4 among regional universities in the South.

Stetson in Florida history

  • It was founded as DeLand Academy in 1883 and renamed John B. Stetson University in 1889.
  • DeLand Hall, built in 1884, "is the oldest building in Florida in continuous use for higher education," according to a Stetson history page online. Its college of law, founded in 1900, was the state's first.
  • That year the Stetson men's basketball team had its first game, a low-scoring loss to Rollins College.
  • Stetson won Florida's first-ever intercollegiate football game on Nov. 22, 1901, against Lake City's Florida Agricultural College.
  • Stetson, which had been whites-only, began to integrate in 1962.
  • The university had a relationship with the Florida Baptist Convention for about a hundred years and received financial support. That relationship ended in 1995 following Stetson's decision to let students drink alcohol on campus.

Sources: Florida State Archives, Stetson University, U.S. News and World Reports

The announcement capped an exciting week for Stetson. On the previous Sunday, it had won the Atlantic Sun Conference championship and earned a place in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 53 years as a Division I school.

"This whole week has been great, said junior gaurd Jalen Blackmon. "Everybody's been showing us love. And just doing it with this group has been amazing."

Blackmon scored 43 points in the championship game.

Christopher Roellke holds a basketball and pen.
Joe Byrnes
Stetson University President Christopher Roellke held a basketball signed by Hatter players during Sunday evening's watch party.

University President Christopher Roellke may be the most enthusiastic fan the team has. On Sunday, he carried a basketball signed by the players and wore a Stetson hat.

"This is profoundly exciting for Stetson University in DeLand, Florida," he said. "Yeah, we're gonna take Stetson from Florida gem to national treasure, and there is no faster way to do that than to be a part of March Madness. As president, this is just the best. Go Hatters!"


Why are they called the Hatters?

The name "Hatters" reflects the university's association with John B. Stetson, maker of Stetson hats. He became chairman of the university's board in 1889.

Does Stetson have a mascot?

His name is "John B." He wears a big gray-and-green Stetson hat, boots and a green bandana. Stetson's colors are dark green and white.

Do the Hatters have a fight song?

Yes. You can find the music at this link. And here are the lyrics:

Stetson U will win the game / Listen to our cheer, / GO HATTERS!

Shout the glory of your name, / Spread it far and near, / YEA HATTERS!

Alma Mater, praise to thee, / And our teammates true, / GO HATTERS!

Marching on to victory, / Let's GO, HATTERS, GO!

Source: Stetson University

Stetson has played intercollegiate basketball since 1900. And it’s had some outstanding players through the years, like seven-year NBA center Lorenzo Williams.

He teaches high school in Broward County now. In an interview last week, Williams spoke about his reaction to the conference championship game.

"When the last second clicked off that clock, you know, I was like, Yes! And my wife came into the room, like, what's going on? ... I said, my team, my college team, we finally made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in history. So ... I was blown away.

Stetson men's basketball head coach Donnie Jones said the team will play their own game and play with freedom and a lot of confidence.
Joe Byrnes
Stetson men's basketball head coach Donnie Jones said the team will play their own game and play with freedom and a lot of confidence.

Stetson head coach Donnie Jones has heard from other former players, too.

"I've got so many text messages over the last week, just how much it meant, you know, for them to be recognized," he said, "just as a university, one, and now just bringing some pride back into the program. I think a lot of these guys had some success, individually, but had never won a championship."

Jones says he's glad their name was called first.

"So now we know," he said, "We get ready to go, a lot of excitement. Obviously, a huge opportunity for us. You're playing the defending national (champions) -- incredible task, incredible opportunity at the same time."

As a coach, Jones says this is his 15th NCAA tournament -- and he'll have the team ready to play their game and "play with freedom" and confidence.

And you never know.

"It's different, March is," Jones said, "And it's, you know, March Madness creates some crazy opportunities for people."

Senior guard Stephan Swenson said everything about this year has been, quote, "special." And so it makes sense that they're playing the reigning champs.

"We're Stetson," he added, "we've always been looked down on as an underdog, and to be able to be in the biggest stage and being again David and Goliath. It just makes the story more sweeter."

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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