It has been five long years since former Hernando High basketball standout Jason Sartor first walked onto the campus at Saint Leo College.
Sartor was redshirted his freshman season because seven seniors and four juniors threatened to dominate playing time. Besides, Sartor was a little thin for his 6-foot-7 frame. He could wait.
In the three years following, Sartor started 24 games, averaging 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds. But the team floundered and a string of losing seasons finally bottomed out last year when the Monarchs struggled to a 4-21 mark.
Sartor also has been forced to play for four coaches in his five seasons.
"It's been interesting," Sartor said. "Every year I've had to learn a different system and a different philosophy. All four coaches have had different styles."
Saint Leo's most recent coaching experiment, Todd Smyly, brought immediate success. The rejuvenated Monarchs opened the 1993-94 season by winning eight of their first 12 non-conference games. Saint Leo then opened its Sunshine State Conference slate with a solid win over Rollins. The Monarchs, struggling in close games, eventually followed with six consecutive losses, before finishing strong with wins in five of their last seven conference meetings.
Saint Leo (14-12 overall, 6-8 in the conference) finished fifth in the SSC and will meet Florida Tech (15-11, 7-7) in the opening round of the conference tournament Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Tampa.
Although Smyly's style certainly is working, it wasn't exactly an instant hit with Sartor.
Before the first game of the season, a misunderstanding led to a confrontation between the two and Sartor walked out of practice.
"It was just miscommunication, basically on my part," said Sartor, one of three captains along with Chris Skyers and Joey Brauer. "(Smyly) was trying to get a point across and I interpreted it in the wrong way. After practice, I went to his office, sat down and we talked about it."
As a first-year coach, Smyly felt he had to establish respect. He suspended Sartor for one game.
"It was no big deal," Smyly explained. "It's not even worth mentioning. I have to admire Jason for what he's been through _ four coaches in five years. For him to weather that type of storm and still be so consistent is a compliment to him."
With more quality players on the squad this season, Sartor's minutes and scoring numbers have come down. The senior currently is averaging 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
"It's nice to be winning and to have more people on the team to help out," Sartor said. "Every night someone different is stepping up. That creates a lot of problems for other teams. They can't key on one or two players and that has contributed greatly to our success."
"The players finally realize that this is what it takes to win," he said. "They've accepted their roles. In the past when they were winning four games a year, they had nothing to play for except statistics. Now we're playing to win."
Sartor, who expects to graduate with a sports management degree this spring, likely will spend one more summer in the Tampa Bay Pro-Am League, where his involvement has led to the chance of playing overseas as a professional.
"Some people have expressed interest," Sartor said. "If the offer is reasonable, I'll definitely look into it."
Including Sartor, six of the 14 Saint Leo players will complete their eligibility this season. Although that's a big hit to take, several key underclassmen, as well as Smyly's first recruiting class, should soften the effect.
"If the school gives (Smyly) the scholarships he needs to get quality players, I think you'll see the team continue to improve," Sartor said. "We've seen in one year what (Smyly) can do for the program. It's what Saint Leo has been up against all along. We can't compete in this conference unless we're on a level field with everyone else. Now that money is finally coming into the athletic program, we're seeing a change."
As he looks back on his college career, Sartor seems satisfied.
"Above all, I probably learned how to deal with adversity and change," he said. "It hasn't been the kind of career you look back on and say it was great in terms of wins and losses. But at least I ended up with a winning season and we're going into the conference tournament with as good a chance as anyone else. It's just so much better knowing that when we look in the newspaper after a win, it's not considered an upset."
It has been a long time coming.