For the second time in three years, the top-seeded Yeshiva University Maccabees men’s basketball team captured the Skyline Conference Championship, thanks to an 86-74 victory over No. 2 Purchase College, at the Max Stern Athletic Center on West 185th Street in Northern Manhattan on March 1. The conference win was the second in its program history and guaranteed the Maccabees an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III tournament.

As New York Senator Chuck Schumer began his 2020 AIPAC speech, massive applause erupted during his shoutout to the crowned Macs. The Washington Heights team has come face-to-face with the evils of anti-Semitism on and off the court. Taunts like coins being thrown from the stands and ethnic slurs asserting “Hitler was right!” from opponents and spectators have tried to shake their gracefulness, but the club takes satisfaction in their united Jewish identity and in being the best team in Jewish Orthodox college history with many proudly donning their kippas proclaiming their faith to all. Kobe Bryant, in a 2006 exchange brought to light by reporter Aaron Kaplowitz, mentioned, “I wouldn’t mind being Jewish” when discussing Jewish athletes in sports. It begs one to ponder how delighted Bryant would be today to see the stars of Blue and White putting on their dancing shoes in the NCAA Division III matchup.

Nationally ranked No. 13 by D3Hoops, Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, secured its 27th consecutive win since a failed November 9th season opener, the most victories in all of NCAA Division III and surpassing the school team all-time high by ten. The team’s success and milestone year is part of the vision Yeshiva University Head Coach Elliot Steinmetz had when he took over the program back in 2014. As a youth, Steinmetz played on the Blue and White court and joined hoping to recruit our nation’s best Jewish players. “Nobody begins a season intentionally planning to set records, but it is no surprise with such a star team and coach,” offered a parent in attendance. Following the conference win, Steinmetz, the Skyline Coach of the Year, commented to Bruce Beck of NBC 4, “Now we celebrate, and tomorrow we start focusing on our next game ready to compete with the big boys.” 

Senior guard Tyler Hod, whose father was the ’87-’88 Mac team captain, led his fellow squad members and fans in a beautiful melody of thanksgiving to Hashem following Skyline Conference title. This practice follows a pregame formality where the club huddles to listen to Hod’s inspiring thoughts and join in unison to respond, “Amen!”

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s get the 17th win or let’s get the 24th win,’” explained senior forward Gabriel Leifer, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the championships and earned a spot on the All-Skyline First Team for the second time. In the Sunday afternoon game, Leifer generated his third triple-double of the season, scored 16 points, grabbed a career-high 24 rebounds, and led all players with 12 assists. “It was more like, ‘let’s take this one night at a time and eventually over time we’ll build a winning streak.’ But I guess we started to realize it once we broke the school record.”

Leifer is one of five players from the tri-state area; others hail from California, Texas and Colorado, occasionally passing up offers Ivy League and Division I schools in order to attended Yeshiva’s dual curriculum of playing ball while being engrossed in both Judaic studies and rigorous academia.

Students comment that the religious observance amongst teammates is contagious. For the players, the overall program is an experience of a lifetime despite NCAA Division III schools not offering scholarships to their student-athletes.

For the Macs, L.A. native guard Ryan Turell, who had a game-high 29 points, was honored as the Skyline Player of the Year and earned a spot on the All-Skyline First Team. He averages 23 points a game and became the only sophomore in school history to reach the 1,000-career point milestone; this was also the fastest in the program in just 47 games.

“What is important is not just that the Macs are winning – it is the way they are winning: with selflessness, teamwork and great sportsmanship,” expressed Rabbi Ari Berman, President of YU, in an interview with the Associated Press. “They are an embodiment of our mission to bring our positive Jewish values out into the world.”

On Monday, March 2, the Maccabees were officially announced as a competitor in the 2020 NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Championship. In a Pool C bid, WPI, Worcester Polytechnic Institute Engineers, were informed that they would battle the Macs at a Friday, March 6th 1 p.m. tipoff at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. This works well for a team that cannot play on Shabbos, Jewish festivals, or fast days. The Blue and White held a viewing party at the Max Stern Athletic Center Gymnasium where they heard McHugh comment, “Yeshiva is a well-watched program around the world by the Jewish community.” Two years ago, when Yeshiva was in the tournament, the game was aired on DirectTV due to high demand. “They are coming to Baltimore, which has a large Jewish community. That place is going to be rocking and not feel like a Johns Hopkins gym.” The team acknowledges that they are much more prepared than their experience two years prior.

All season, the mantra has been to keep their A-game and be focused on one game at a time. This theme remains true as the final chapter has yet to be written. In an interview with PIX11 News, Turell added, “We stay hungry, stay focused, and stay poised for the national championships.”

 By Shabsie Saphirstein