Ed Cooley

There comes a time at the end of every press conference that head coach Ed Cooley senses the end is near. His cadence changes, the theme shifts, and the words get loud, proud and unapologetic.

This week, Cooley dared to speak of the not-too-distant future, when, regardless of how well the Stags play this season and how much they accomplish between now and March 5, everything comes down to thos three days in Albany.

“To be honest with you, sometimes I like being on the road,” Cooley quipped, unfazed by a question asking whether the Stags were prepared for the team’s upcoming stretch of away games that spans six of eight games, 29 days, and a trip to – you guessed it – Albany. “We’re in a hotel. Our guys are not distracted by social activities that they can be on campus with tickets, and girlfriends around, and family members that can be disruptive.”

While Cooley may like being on the road, he has not had much success in his three seasons at Fairfield, mainly due to a tough schedules and bad breaks. But the Stags away record has been steadily improving (see box on right). This year they are 3-4, with seven games left  to play and Cooley hopes the trend continues his way.

“We’ve been decent on the road,” Cooley continued. “I love the challenge of it. Because you have to win the MAAC Championship on the road.  It is going to be won on the road. Why not get used to it now? I’m a big picture guy.

“Win at home, do your best on the road, but ultimately that championship is won on the road,” he added.

He’s half right.

For Fairfield to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Championship, the Stags will have to thrive on the road. Specifically, the road lead to the Times-Union Center in Albany, home of two-time defending champion and midmajor darling Siena.

As if that’s not daunting enough, tournament life has not been kind to Fairfield in Cooley’s tenure; last season’s opening round victory over Manhattan stands as the team’s first postseason victory in his four-year tenure.

The other half of the equation appears to be multiple-choice, since the longer this season of parity continues, and the longer that Siena continues its conference schedule dominance (eight consecutive wins and counting), it becomes more and more apparent that, ultimately, one of two teams will win the MAAC this season: Siena or someone else, an assessment that appears even more like a reality after the Saints handled Fairfield, 81-73, at the Arena at Harbor Yard this past weekend.

“Was this a statement game? Absolutely not,” Cooley answered after Saturday’s loss. “All of the pressure was on Siena. Our statement game comes at the end of the season on a Monday in March in their place.”

Winning at “their” place, though has been a bit of an issue for Fairfield this season. Four of the team’s five losses this season were on the road, including a conference loss to Niagara on Jan. 4.
And while the Fairfield brand of basketball – “our physicality on the road and because we rebound well,” Cooley said – lends itself to success in any venue, the Stags could certainly use the next month to prove that Fairfield warrants consideration as Siena’s greatest threat come tournament time.

That statement stretch begins this Thursday against Marist, where Fairfield lost a season ago in the midst of the team’s hellacious stretch of injuries. It continues this Sunday in New Rochelle against Iona, where the Stags have fallen for two consecutives seasons. Among the other stops on the tour include Lawrenceville, N.J. (the Stags were routed by Rider, 87-59, in 2008 and also lost a season a season ago) and Riverdale, where Manhattan upset the Stags and then Jon Han upended their season.

And, of course, there’s a visit to Albany, a prequel to the biggest weekend of the season.

At some point, whether it is on Feb. 8 against Siena or a month later in the tournament, Cooley’s postgame prophecy will come true. Fairfield will face a watershed moment in its season: eye-to-eye with the Saints on the road, with a lot more on the line than there was in mid-January.

Still, perhaps the statement they make on that day begins much, much earlier. Maybe that crossroads comes when the team hits the road this Thursday.

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