Behind the Scenes at the D3 Sweet 16

The first thing you notice about LeFrak Gym when you walk in is the smell of lacquered wood. This place is old and it creaks with the charm of a matchbox that would have stories if it could talk.

It’s here, at Amherst College, that this charming old box is hosting the Division III Men’s Sweet 16, and it has arguably the best pound-for-pound basketball in the country on its night.

Fifth-ranked Swarthmore is playing sixth-ranked Randolph-Macon and the night closes with host, and seventh-ranked, Amherst College hosting 14th-ranked Nichols College. A battle of the two best Division III programs in Massachusetts this year.

However, days like these don’t just happen. At the Division I level there are dozens of people working to make sure that the tournament goes off without a hitch. Press conference interviews are fully transcribed. Coaches and players and TV broadcasters all have managers and handlers to move them through the arena and the sea of people within it. On the court, teams have a slew of aids and trainers and other support staff to aid the team once the ball is tipped.

By comparison, Division III is low-fi, but it’s no less planned and executed. The Division I regionals are announced years in advance and are all at major national venues. The location of tonight’s games was only announced five days ago. In that time, travel had to be booked, hotels had to be secured, and all the trappings of a national tournament had to be put in place.

However, Craig Kaufman doesn’t have an army at his disposal. The Director of Athletic Communications here at Amherst is in charge of it all with an assist from his intern, Patrick McKearney.

“As soon as the call comes out on Sunday everybody sort of jumps into their roles,” Kaufman said as our voices echoed throughout the empty gym before the festivities. “People that do logistics, transport and hotels. People like contest management, tournament management, sports information. Everybody starts turning their wheels, and the gears of a championship start turning.”

Games are in 80 minutes but Kaufman is cool and collected as he and the facilities staff make the final prep before doors open. Amherst is no stranger to hosting these kinds of events. Just last week the women hosted a pod of first and second round matchups. The soccer and lacrosse teams regularly host NCAA tournament games, and the annual football game with Williams draws more than 8,000.

The key is making sure that everything is ready to go long in advance of game time and give the game the respect it deserves. Of the 448 Division III athletic programs in the country, these are four of the final 16 remaining in men’s basketball.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and I really enjoy it when it’s over,” Kaufman said with a chuckle. “I enjoy hosting. I think it’s really cool to put the experience together and make it as much of a D1 experience as we can. That’s my whole mentality of sports information in general; trying to give student-athletes as professional experience as possible. The same goes for the SIDs too. I want them to feel like they are at a big championship because they are. For what we do this is pretty much as big as it gets.”

It’s 4:07 pm and Allison Hudak is taping up guards. The athletic trainer for Swarthmore is making sure the guys are ready to go for their game that is less than an hour away. It’s what she’s done for more than a decade.

The athletic trainer’s job at times can be invisible. You prep the team before the game, work on any tweaks at halftime, and break it all down after the final horn. To make an appearance during a game means that something has gone wrong for a player.

“Part of what keeps me doing what I do is having a hand in being able to enable our student-athletes to do what they love to do,” Hudak said. “For them these are the goals they set out to achieve. To know they can do that, and do that successfully, and I’m able to provide some peace of mind validates what we do. It’s a lot of fun.”

However, for the team, the trainer is an integral asset. Not just someone trained to help soothe the aches and pains that come with sports, but a confidant and friend that, over time, learns every quirk  of the players on the team

“I think the best that we can do generally speaking just as people is be really good at communicating at what our needs are and doing our best to meet both sets of needs without compromising one or the other,” Hudak said. “And a lot of times as you get ot know the players you get to know their idiosyncrasies. You get to know the ways in which they communicate whether it’s verbally or non-verbally; sometimes you have to read between the lines to see something that’s going on a little bit deeper and ask the right questions.”

She describes her medical kit as something akin to a portable athletic training room. On an ideal night it never gets used.

20190308_171956
Allison Hudak’s training setup takes up a whole table on its own.

Bradley Jacks has been here before. Hell, he’s been to the mountaintop. Jacks was a reserve on Babson College’s 2017 national championship team. He put up points in the national final and was part of multiple tournament runs during his time in Wellesley.

Now Jacks is a first-year assistant coach for Randolph-Macon College and is back at LeFrak after so many battles he had against Amherst during his college days.

“I can relate to what these guys are going through day to day,” Jacks said. “You see things different through the coaches lens than you do as a player. I’m glad I’m with these guys. Being on this side you understand what they’re going through only being one year removed. I try to just help where I can and encourage them each day. You have to play hard. You have to bring it.”

Jacks played a key role in scouting for the Yellow Jackets this season and it has paid off. Jacks said he watches upward of 50 hours of film a week. He is trying to help guide Randolph-Macon, which is 27-3, to equal a program-best 28 wins in a season.

During Babson’s championship year Jacks and the Beavers played here in Amherst. They lost 99-97 in double overtime.

20190308_172438
Bradley (holding folder) giving advice to his team in the first half vs Swarthmore.

It’s 4:52 pm. The gym is about a third full. Hudak is prepping her trainer’s station and making sure water bottles are full. Jacks has changed from a team sweatsuit pregame to a shape blue suit with goal tie for the contest. Kaufman is hunkered down at the main table. Not only is he the lead media coordinator tonight, but he is also the official scorer.

The game tips right at 5 pm and the story begins. There’s a sizable Swarthmore contingent sitting across from their bench. Many are wearing garnet “Swat More” shirts. Randolph-Macon had a loud group of fans at the far end of the gym. One in particular can be heard echoing throughout after most whistles. Not often does a fan punch the ceiling during a basketball game.

 

It’s 5:17. Randolph-Macon has opened up a seven-point lead and seemingly can’t miss. Shots are falling from everywhere. It’s a good basketball here in Amherst.

It’s 5:22. Swarthmore’s George Visconti hits the deck hard. He covers his face in pain and his body tenses as well. Allison’s number gets called.

Out onto the court she goes to help the freshman.  The noise seeps into the wood and disappears for a moment. However, it ends well as she helps Visconti to his feet and guides him off as he leaves the floor under his own power. Onto the table he goes for concussion protocol and further examination.

Eventually he returns, albeit with a bandage over his left eye, and plays 31 minutes, scores eight points, and pulls down six rebounds. The noise reappears as Hudak returns to her post, a job well done.

“Big assist to Allison,” Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said postgame.

Randolph-Macon led 41-33 at halftime

The smoothness of the evening is apparent. The people in charge of running the night have set everything in place so the machine doesn’t stop. Patrick handles the print and TV media while Craig helps keep the head table in order and works with the broadcasting crew.

All of this happens invisibly right in front of the crowd. Good logistics and organization should never be seen by anyone other than the people in charge of it. It should be seamless and smooth. Craig does it all with an expressionless face. The crowd is tense the way only spectators can be. Craig Kaufman is working.

It’s 6:00 pm. Jacks is sitting on the bench, stroking his chin gently. The Garnet are slowly feeling it and have cut the gap to four. 

It’s 6:29. Kaufman has quietly been making sure everything stays in order. Him and McKearney have been on top of everything media-related which has meant the game has run smoothly across the board. Jacks is still coaching although now RMC leads by only three. Hudak has been making sure the water bottles stay filled and everything is right on the Swarthmore bench. She has yet to return to the court. She likes it that way.

The game thunders to a climax. A contest that saw a combined 71 points in the first half won’t even crest 45 in the final 20 minutes.

Zac O’Dell drives the lane and lays it in with 90 seconds left to give Swarthmore a 55-54 lead with 90 seconds left. As people begin to trickle in for the next game the energy begins to grow. Jacks remains stoic on the bench.

Randolph-Macon responds with a three and gives Swarthmore the ball with 35 seconds to go and one last chance.

The Yellow Jackets try. They have no response.

 

Jacks is still stoic. Yes, he’s won a national title but he’s also felt deep stinging losses. He’s the last coach on the court for RMC. Buzz Anthony wraps his arm around teammate Corey Bays, who is in tears, and helps him off the floor. They’ll be back next year.

Hudak holds a good poker face. Kaufman is in his laptop making sure the stats are correct. The crowd is buzzing as the gears turn. Swarthmore 58, Randolph-Macon 57.

It’s 7:09. Hudak’s bag is packed and she is chatting with parents and fans of the team. The smiles flow like wine on New Year’s Eve. Victory tends to do that this time of year. The Garnet are in the Elite Eight.

20190308_211050
Nate Tenaglia

It’s 6:13. Nate Tenaglia sits on the front row of the bleachers with earbuds in. He keeps both hands around his phone lest he drop it. He and his Nichols College teammates are watching Swarthmore and the Yellow Jackets.

Tenaglia has had a hell of a road to get to this point. He will start tonight’s game for Nichols. The sophomore from Tewksbury, Massachusetts is arguably the greatest basketball player Tewksbury High has ever seen. A 1,000-point scorer who put in 38 points in his final high school game and helped lead them to great success.

But he’s most known for what happened in November. During a game at Fitchburg State, Tenaglia was on the receiving end of this elbow in a game that became a national story.

However, this season has been a good one for the sophomore. He has started 27 games and is averaging eight points, two rebounds, and nearly two steals a night. Tonight he will be asked to harness his manic energy in a powder keg of a gym against one of the perennial powerhouses of D3 basketball.

It’s 7:31. Tenaglia picks a steal and goes coast to coast before dumping it off to Matt Morrow for an easy layup. Nichols leads 2-0.

The building is electric. There’s arguably more Nichols fans than Amherst fans here. The Bison have connected with the student body in a way that is almost transcendent. In the conference final two weeks ago, on a neutral court, 3,000 people showed up to watch the Bison beat Gordon College. There are only 1,570 students at the school.

It’s 8:04. Nate only has two steals but he draws a foul while shooting a three and makes two shots. Amherst leads by a point.

It’s 8:07. We are tied at 24. The energy is building. Nichols star Marcos Echevarria is having a tough go of it. He is 15 points shy of 2,500 for his career but can’t find open space to shoot.

It’s hot in here. Actively hot. Not warm. Hot. It’s sub-freezing outside and you would never know it. This place is over capacity. People are standing behind the media table and camped out in corners or on riser steps. Wherever there is a spot with a view of the court there is a human occupying it. Craig Kaufman is in a black suit sitting between the benches with the Nichols students bearing down over his shoulder. 

It’s 8:10. Marcos hits a two at the horn. Tied at 26 at the half. There is no emotion from anyone. This is business, and it feels personal.

It’s 8:36. Tenaglia misses a rushed three. Things are grim for Nichols. Amherst leads by nine with 12 minutes to go.

It’s 8:40. Marcos hits a three. It is his 104th straight game hitting a three. That extends his NCAA record.

The sound fills your lungs when you breathe. No, this game isn’t on network TV. No, ESPN isn’t here. But this is the most important game in the universe right now. Nothing else matters except the events that transpire on this 94-foot long length of wood.

The attendance is announced as 1,900. It feels like 3,000. There are people five and six deep in the corners. There are Nichols students standing at the media table. 

It’s 8:41. Tenaglia gets in on the fun with a three of his own. The noise echoes in ribs. Amherst’s lead is down to five. Craig Kaufman still has his jacket on.

Nate Tenaglia isn’t an imposing person. Listed at 5’9 on the roster, his game is based on hustle, intelligence, and tenacity. He dives into jump ball situations and has to be restrained by teammates when he feels unjustly fouled. The energy he brings is contagious and borders on being too much. But he’s always harnessed it. That’s why he was a star in high school. That’s why he is a starter on one of the top teams in the country.

“He’s our backbone,” Nichols junior DeAnte Bruton said. “He’s our go-to guy. When we need a big play we depend on Nate. He doesn’t care. He’s so selfless as long as he brings the energy on defense. He’s just a warrior.”

Bradley Jacks and Randolph-Macon sit quietly in a corner of the end zone bleachers watching the game. In a room full of energy there is just malaise in this little corner.

It’s 8:51. The noise is incalculable. Tenaglia grabs a jump ball and calls for a timeout. He gets it. Bison lead 49-47 with 5:31 left.

Nichols extends the lead to seven before Marcos goes down from a hard fall and has to go through concussion protocol. Tenaglia leaves with a cramp. He works it out on the bench and then a little more while waiting to check back in. Nichols lead by seven.

Then Nichols lead by five. Then four. Then one. The Mammoths roar back to make it a one-point difference with 30 seconds left. Marcos makes a free throw. It’s 60-58.

Amherst has a chance. The ball pops loose.

It’s 9:12. Nate Tenaglia reaches into the scrum for a loose ball. A jump is called. Nichols possession. Marcos makes two shots right after. Nichols 62, Amherst 58. Final.

20190308_220353
Nate in victory.

The Nichols students pour out onto the court. One turns to the Amherst student section and says “Oh, is this your court? Is this your court?” He laughs as he gets no response.

It is their court, and they just got eliminated on it. The Bison advance to the first Elite Eight in program history. 

The PA announcer implores the crowd to leave the floor. Police officers flank the sidelines. No one wants to leave. No one wants this moment to end. No one in Nichols green & black wants this night to be over.

It’s 10:04. There’s eight people left in the gym. Hudak and Jacks are long gone. Tenaglia and his teammates were happily catching up with family and friends but are now gone too.

The facilities team is cleaning up. The Nichols SID is finishing his work. Another writer and I are filing. Craig Kaufman remains at the head table finishing his duties for the night. Tomorrow he will work a game featuring schools he doesn’t work for in a tournament that Amherst is no longer in.

The tournament stops for no one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s