San Diego coach Sam Scholl was clearly enjoying himself during a postgame news conference Saturday night after his team beat BYU for its third win in three days to advance to the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament.
The 41-year-old first-time coach implored the media to ask freshman Finn Sullivan a question after his breakout 17-point performance. Scholl wants to have him ready for the many media sessions he hopes Sullivan will endure and joked about what the team would do with a Sunday off.
The fun and frivolity, along with the success on the floor, shows how far the program has come from this same event at Orleans Arena a year ago. That was when Scholl was serving as interim coach because Lamont Smith was taking a leave of absence after his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence on the team’s final regular season road trip.
Scholl served as interim for the league tournament and then a run to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament quarterfinals. Smith was never charged, but decided to resign and Scholl was given the full-time job in April.
“This year, we’re the coaches,” Scholl said. “Last year, we were coaching the team and there was a little bit of a dark cloud hanging over our head and some uncertainty.”
Their lone game in the tournament last year was a hard-fought loss to BYU. Saturday night, the Toreros took revenge with a blowout win that earned them a Monday semifinal matchup with Saint Mary’s at 8:30 p.m.
“Last year, I feel like as much as we went through, it just brought us closer together,” senior guard Isaiah Wright said. “This year feels a lot different because of the togetherness and connectedness is just so different this year for us. It definitely made us stronger.”
It hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition for Scholl, a Washington native who played his final two collegiate seasons at San Diego before serving as an assistant coach at the school for seven years. He then spent eight years as an assistant at Santa Clara before returning to his alma mater in 2015.
His first full season has included injuries at different times to three different starters, but Scholl has the Toreros once again living up to the potential they showed in beating Colorado, San Diego State and Washington State in nonconference games.
“They took over under difficult circumstances and he and his staff have done a terrific job,” Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek said. “His team is well-organized. They compete and they play hard. They’re difficult to prepare for because they do almost countless things. He comports himself the right way. He’s a real gentleman. I have nothing but the highest regard for him and his staff.”
Scholl inherited a veteran group that he had already worked with as an assistant. With injuries and setbacks in conference play that had them fall to a No. 7 seed, he could have written it off as a learning experience and look toward the future. Instead he has the team rallying in the conference tournament.
“This has been all about our guys,” Scholl said. “It’s about the players and our program will always be about our players. It’s about giving them the best opportunity to go out and reach their dreams. We’re one step closer. They are establishing our culture and our way of doing things. I really appreciate everything they’ve done for our program.”
Scholl is definitely a happy man right now.
“It’s been an unbelievable blessing,” he said. “I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity and to be with these guys and represent the University of San Diego. I wake up every morning with a tremendous sense of humility for this opportunity I have. I’m just thrilled and want it to keep going.”
They’ll have that chance against Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga will play Pepperdine in the other semifinal at 6 p.m.