A look at the different stories of Villanova Basketball Senior Day

Matthew Sheridan

On the surface, it was like any other game at the Pavilion. The #25-ranked Providence Friars had traveled down to take on the #6 Villanova Wildcats Men’s Basketball Team. Paced by 24 points from Darrun Hilliard and 16 from JayVaughn Pinkston, ’Nova captured the victory and a guaranteed share of the Big East Regular Season Championship by a score of 89-61 (Since this game, they have gone on to win the conference regular season title outright). It was not just another game, however. This was the last game at the Pavilion for seniors Hilliard and Pinkston and also for seniors behind the bench for the team, in the student section, in the band and on the student radio.

Villanova Men’s Basketball is as large a part of the University’s identity as anything else. Most students have individual “Villanova Basketball Stories.” Although not everybody was going to be on the court, each student has a personal interaction with what going to these games over the last four years has meant to them.


More than a water boy


Nick Dipaola’s game day starts long before ’Nova Nation arrives to pack the Pavilion. “It starts five hours before tip-off. So for a 7 o’clock game we’ll have a timed, sixty-minute walk through at 2 p.m.,” he said. “At 3 p.m. we’ll have a pregame meal exactly four hours before tip-off, with Father Rob saying a prayer. Then the players go rest before showing up to the arena two hours before game time and then start trickling onto the court and getting going about 90 minutes before the game starts.”

DiPaola serves the thankless role of manager for the Men’s Basketball Program. His responsibilities as one of the team managers include doing laundry, supervising morning shootarounds, setting up waters on game days, taping the court, laying out the proper practice jerseys and even serving as practice dummies for the various drills the team goes through on a daily basis.

 “During games all people see is we hand out waters behind the bench, and that is pretty much all we do during the games,” DiPaola said. “So I’m known as a ‘Water boy.’ That’s fine. I like to think of it as more than that, but I’m happy with the ‘Water boy’ title, too. You have to embrace it. If you can’t joke with yourself, you can’t be a manager.”

A major reason why DiPaola enrolled at the University is because of the basketball team. “I just knew I really loved basketball.” DiPaola said. “Coming into college, it was either Division III basketball or go to a school with good basketball. So I came here and I knew I had to be around the game.”

This desire to stay around the sport caused him to spend almost every day of his fall semester freshman year hanging around the basketball program asking if he could be a manager for the team. “It got to the point where the secretary knew my name. I was super annoying, but I was persistent until they had to give it to me,” he said. Finally around mid-October of his freshman year, he got a text message from a member of the coaching staff asking if he could show up to practice that day. He’s been a part of the program ever since, ascending from mop duty his freshman year to now traveling with the team to away games along with fellow senior managers Mike Clark and Jack McGinley.

DiPaola’s experience with the Villanova Basketball team is unlike many others’ on campus. Tailgating at the Wells Fargo Center, going away for Spring Break, or just lounging around in a dorm for a few hours to kill before class have not been the staples of his time in college as they are for so many other Villanovans. Nonetheless, he has unique memories that only somebody with such a close daily proximity to the program can have.

“My sophomore year we were playing Monmouth. There’s a guy in a hotel elevator in a scuba suit. Next thing I know he starts talking to Jay Wright. Coach Wright is loving every minute of it,” DiPaola recalls of one particular moment. “This guy tells Coach Wright ‘I’m going to go dive in the ocean for you guys!’ So I follow him out to the beach and this grown man is fighting, punching waves, and I turn around and hear Coach Wright cheering the guy on from his balcony.”

After his time at the University, DiPaola will be pursuing a career in basketball, and he hopes to be a graduate assistant at a college program next year. “If you were to tell me my freshman year that I would be in the position to be a graduate assistant, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t think I wanted to do that,” he says. “I kind of have to pinch myself and just say ‘This is a good gig, I’m going with it.’”

DiPaola received his time in the spotlight on Senior Night when he was honored on the court before the game with his parents. His journey that began when he was an unrelenting freshman had come full circle.  


“Advocacy in its rawest form”


Around ninety minutes before tip-off against Providence, Seniors Rudy Celli and Joe Lenz arrived at the Pavilion. Celli and Lenz can often be seen in the front row of home games. Now for their final one, they were again arriving early to ensure their priority seating.

“My parents went here. I actually grew up sitting up there in the WD section, so I always revered the student section,” says Celli.

The ’Nova Nation Student Section, and everything that goes along with it—the community aspect, the national prominence, the exciting sporting events—played a huge role in bringing each of them to Villanova.

“When I was moving from my former institution, I really wanted to find a school that had that student atmosphere and that community,” said Celli. “For me, the student section here really embodied that.” 

“Villanova is my high school, but like ten times bigger, plus girls, so it’s that kind of atmosphere. Members of the community come out and pour their hearts out for the team,” says Lenz. “You know you get the diehard fans when we’re sitting in the front row, and the same people show up every time. So that’s something I was definitely looking for.”

As prominent members of the student section, Celli and Lenz feel that both the crowd and the team have made great strides in their years at the University.

“Having a supportive student section leads in part to the energy that the team brings,” said Lenz. “I know we’re really excited about it and being where we are right now, I’m really hyped about it and I’m happy the team was able to do that this year.”

“I mean, The Pavilion has always been a tough atmosphere to play in, but I think ever since I’ve been here and the team has improved, it’s become even tougher. It’s one of a kind,” said Celli. “It’s one of the smallest Division I arenas in the country, and the student section is literally right on top of the one basket.”

Their favorite memories include the usual highlights for upperclassmen—the victories in 2013 over Louisville and Syracuse in one week, upon which the student section stormed the court each time—and more personal ones. 

“The St. Joe’s game our sophomore year specifically stands out to me because we were trailing the entire game,” Celli recalled. “That week, in fact, I had been broken up with by a girl who went to St. Joe’s. To add insult to injury, she was texting me about the game while it was going on. Then after we won, I sent her one final text and that was the last time we ever spoke, so that really put an exclamation point on that.”

Ultimately, it is the ability to represent Villanova in such a raucous manner that they will miss the most. “You just so rarely have the opportunity to be a student, and be an advocate in this fashion. Just being loud, and being rowdy, and bouncing around with 1,000 other people is something you’re not going to be able to do as an adult after college.

“You can just check everything at the door, and for the entirety of the game you’re solely focused on just backing your school. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of several programs in which I’ve been able to be an advocate for the school, but this is pure advocacy, in its rawest form.”


“Supporting the team the best way I knew how”


At 6:52 p.m., the Villanova University Pep Band strikes up the fight song and the team comes running down to the court from the top of the student section. Standing in the middle of the musicians is Roxanne Chalifoux, a senior piccolo player. Chalifoux has been playing in the band since her freshman year.

“The first Pavilion experience was Hoops Mania my freshman year. I just remember 

hinking the pump-up music and everything was really cool,” said Chalifoux. “I wasn’t nervous, though, because you can’t really hear me.”

Like many other Villanova students, she counts the games at the Wells Fargo Center as some of her fondest memories, with the huge crowds and exciting atmosphere creating indelible memories.

This combination of music and basketball has led to a feeling of contribution to both the team and the school. “It always made me feel like I was giving something to the crowd and supporting the team in something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.”

“This is kind of what everybody in the band lives for,” said Chalifoux. “We love going to the postseason, we love going to the Big East and the NCAA’s. So once it’s over there’s definitely going to be that sadness.”


“Bar room talk, but courtside”


“We go to the half with your Villanova Wildcats leading the Providence Friars by a score of 34-25. Now, let’s send it back to Greg in the booth. This is 89.1 WXVU, your home for Villanova Wildcats Men’s Basketball!”

It’s 7:52 on the 2015 Men’s Basketball Senior Night and senior Nick Holden, along with two of his closest friends, Adam Butler and Mark Mullany, has just thrown the WXVU broadcast of the game to the booth, and the three of them now relax in their press row seats. 

“Mark, my roommate, got me interested in it. He put me in contact with the sports director freshman year,” said Holden. “It’s been a blessing. This appeals to my sense of humor so it’s been great.”

“This is pretty funny, I’m involved because of Nick actually. We all lived in Alumni together and I remember seeing him coming back from the game all dressed up, so I asked him about that and I started doing it,” Butler added.

“I wanted to cover Villanova since my freshman year, so first day of college I signed up for the newspaper and signed up for the radio,” Mullany said.

Like any great broadcast team, these three are genuine friends, and that friendship shines through their conversations both on and off the air. They play to each other’s strengths as broadcasters, knowing when to call on one or the other for an interesting tidbit, a funny anecdote or some insightful analysis about the game.

“I love doing it with people that I enjoy, talking about sports with them and just hanging out with them in general,” said Holden. “I think in many pro broadcasts you don’t see the chemistry being there, but it’s always there for WXVU. It’s like bar room talk, but courtside.” 

“We know each other so well,” said Mullany. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We try to reflect the passion of the fans but also be informative about the game.”

For these guys, covering Villanova Basketball games for WXVU has offered them not only the opportunity to sit courtside for games of a top-ten team, but also to step outside of their personal comfort zone and live the dream of a professional radio announcer.“This is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I’m an engineering major,” Butler said. “I don’t even talk that much normally, but the fact that I get to talk about basketball sitting next to the court, it feels like we made it.”

 “It does.” Holden said. 

“Yeah, it definitely does.” Mullany added. 


“They never thought of giving in or giving up on Villanova”


Although there were so many different stories circulating the senior night game, the fact of the matter is, the game would not exist if it weren’t for the players on the court playing the game. For seniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, the night was special from the outset. 

The players walked out onto the court with their families before the game. While Pinkston and Hiliard were able to hold themselves together, their mothers could not, crying throughout the ceremony. “It was a special moment,” said Hilliard. “Coming from Bethlehem, not a lot of things come out of there, so it was just a special moment.”

A unique aspect of this senior class of Villanova basketball is that while the team is one of the top-ranked teams in the country this season, the team endured one of its worst when Pinkston and Hilliard were freshmen. The team finished 13-19 and fighting on the team and disappointing performances from highly touted recruits highlighted the season. After the highs of the Final Four just years before, this season was not what anybody expected, and it now shapes the way they take the court every day.

“He’s more aggressive now. More hungry. He wants ’Nova to go to the next level,” said Hilliard’s mother, Charlene. “The first year was very tough for him. It was a major adjustment for him. He learned to take the bad with the good.”

Pinkston’s four years can also be defined by this same mantra. During his freshman year, Pinkston was sent to live with a local family for the entire school year as a result of an off-campus incident. He missed all of his classes and all of the basketball season. A McDonald’s All-American out of high school, Pinkston did not envision that kind of a start to his career. 

He did not let the setback derail his career, however. As a redshirt, he returned and had successful freshman and sophomore seasons, despite a 13-19 record and a 21-10 mark that resulted in a first round NCAA tournament exit, respectively.

In the summer following his sophomore season, Pinkston again faced adversity.  After rolling his ankle over summer vacation, he went to the doctor and soon found out that he had MRSA in his system. If the disease spread to his bloodstream, the effects could be potentially fatal. For somebody who had made such strides in returning from unfortunate circumstances, this seemed like a brutal blow. Luckily, doctors caught the disease just in time and were able to prevent it from spreading. 

Both of these young men have grown to impress the entire Villanova community. Signs at the game said “Thank You #4 and #23” and with each Pinkston baseline layup or deep three from Hilliard, the crowd cheered just a little bit louder.

“These are the two guys who never thought of giving in or giving up on Villanova,” head coach Jay Wright said after the game. “This group is always going to be really special to me because of what they went through and where they’ve brought us.”

*   *   *

As the final buzzer sounded on Senior Night, the night and the seniors’ Villanova journeys came full circle. Pinkston’s and Hilliard’s mothers ran hand-in-hand to meet their sons standing atop a press table, Celli and Lenz swayed with their friends to the music, Chalifoux and the band played the fight song and the alma mater, the guys from WXVU wrapped up their broadcast, DiPaola got back to his duties as a manager and countless other Villanova seniors spent their last moments in the Pavilion as students. The end of an era occurred right before everyone’s eyes. 

However, the Villanova Men’s Basketball Team enters the Big East Tournament this weekend and the NCAA tournament next week. Finally, for both the players on the court and the seniors in the crowd, in the band, or on the bench, the best is yet to come.