THP #22: Division II

March 5, 2021 – Springfield, Massachusetts
American International College v Franklin Pierce
Men’s Basketball

There are more than 110 stops on The Hoops Project. Only 11 are in Division II.

Division II basketball is the four-leaf clover of basketball in New England, and the lone league in town is the Northeast-10.

I’ve been around the league as a fan and a reporter for 15 years. I got to follow Bentley’s run at the top of the division many years ago, and I got to cover some of Saint Anselm’s run to the final four in 2019.

The basketball is good, and the league is always top-shelf.

D2 is strange in how it structures its season. The NCAA tournament is built out of eight regional brackets and winning games in region is key. This leads to a final Elite Eight rather than a Final Four like in the other two divisions.

The schools are also a bit of a curiosity in their own right. While Division I is full of flagship state schools and universities with 30,000+ students, and Division III is composed of numerous small state schools and top academic institutions, D2 sits in the middle.

In New England, 10 of the 11 D2 schools are small, private schools. More than half are Catholic institutions.

In my time as a fan I’ve seen UMass-Lowell, Bryant, and Merrimack move from the NE10 up to Division I. It’s a great league, and I’m happy to finally have it as part of The Hoops Project.

Now let me tell you about the dinosaurs.

The City

Springfield is the third largest city in Massachusetts with a population of 153,000 and is about 90 minutes west of Boston.

It’s a city with a rich history and is the hub of culture and commerce in Western Massachusetts.

Downtown Springfield

The Springfield Museums consortium is wonderful. A five-museum campus with two art museums, the Dr. Seuss museum, a science museum, and a museum of Springfield history, it really is a cut above.

Now, this is a basketball blog so what about the Basketball Hall of Fame? There were only certain time blocks I could buy tickets for and I wasn’t able to match that up. The Hall will be visited in a future trip to Hoop City.

But today I found time for the Springfield Science Museum, and it was a delight.

It was a perfect museum. Sure, it didn’t have the scale and gravitas of something like the Chicago Field Museum, but it was an excellent education tool and was a totally fun way to spend an afternoon.

And there was a dinosaur room. Nothing can prepare you for turning through a normal hallway door and coming face-to-face with a T-Rex.

I audibly gasped when I saw it. In my head of course I know a T-Rex is a big, but to see a full-sized replica from ground level was awe-inspiring. The picture does not do justice to its full size.

And right across from it was a replica stegosaurus skeleton. We still don’t know what the plates on its back were designed for.

There was also an exhibit with live reptiles and sea life, both local and exotic. This is what I love about local museums. You can see the work that went into maximizing resources to deliver a memorable experience for everyone who comes through the door.

Boa constrictor
The moose diorama.

Like, look at this obsidian. I love rocks like these. They may as well be alien considering how precise the conditions are to foster their creation, and yet I was able to press my forehead against the glass and see it for myself.

This is why I love stopping into small museums. There’s always something magical hiding in plain sight.

Big chonk of Obsidian

The Good Eats

I’m not going to tell you that The Student Prince is a must-try restaurant but I’m not going to give you a recommendation anywhere else in town.

The German eatery at the corner of Fort and Main Streets has been a Springfield institution since 1935.

Visually, the restaurant is striking for its endless drinking ephemera. Hundreds of beer steins sit above the bar and the tables, and a huge collection of bottle openers are displayed along the walls of the restaurant.

It’s homey without being a cliche.

The bar
A small selection of the bottle opener collection
Even more bottle openers

But every bit of ambience will fall flat if the food sucks, and the food is worth the trip.

For an appetizer I went with the adorable Hurley burgers. Small, bite-sized burgers topped with cheese and atop a ketchup slathered piece of toast.

Those adorable Hurley burgers

They were juicy in a way that only fresh-ground beef can be. For $2 a burger it was a perfect little starter.

But this was a German restaurant. That meant only one thing was on the menu for me: wienerschnitzel.

Now that was a meal. I went with the veal and it was perfectly breaded and fried. You can see the anchovy & lemon garnish that paired beautifully with it. The fries were great too. Bad fries can ruin a meal, but good fries can elevate a dish and boy did these fries pass with flying colors.

And then there was the sleeper hit, the fresh cucumber salad. It’s not like you can get that at most places so I had to try it, and it was great. It balanced that perfect sweet & sour balance while keeping the cucumbers crisp. The parsley garnish added a fresh dynamic to round it out.

If you told me I could go to one of America’s best restaurants and have two courses for less than $35 I’d have laughed at you, but that’s how it goes at The Student Prince. If you’re ever in town, or just passing through, pull off and grab a bite here. It’ll be worth your time and your money.

The Campus

American International College was founded in 1885 as a French Protestant college to serve the city’s diaspora population. Seven years later, in 1892, it became the first college in New England to admit women.

Today, it is a small liberal arts college of 1700 students. The campus itself is quite nice, but the location is strange.

It is wedged between State Street and Wilbraham road, which are both major, multi-lane thoroughfares through Springfield although the athletics facilities are about a mile drive from the main campus.

Despite the odd location, the quadrangle is still quite nice.

Campus quadrangle

The Game

Henry Butova Gymnasium is named for the first coach in program history. Butova only coached the inaugural 1948-49 season and also coached baseball and football for the college.

The most famous coach to stroll the sidelines was Jim Larranaga, who coached the Yellow Jackets from 1977-1979, and a decade prior, Jim Calhoun captained AIC and led them to the Elite Eight.

Tonight though it was AIC taking on conference rival Franklin Pierce.

The one constant this season has been the pregame. The mood’s felt like any other game minus the lack of crowd noise. It’s relaxing.

Despite this being their first, and only official, game of the season due to Covid protocols, Franklin Pierce looked good out the gate, and the game was even early. The Ravens led by a point 13 minutes into the game, and neither could break away.

It had the mesmerizing flow that only the lower divisions can provide. With no media breaks to artificially break up the game, it moves more artistically. The rhythm feels more like an album and less like a series of singles.

It is immensely calming to be around.

The half ended as it started, razor-thin and with a flourish. Xion Golding had the honor of sending the Yellow Jackets into halftime up a point.

After the break, AIC took the game over. The Yellow Jackets started the half on a 17-6 run to open an 11-point lead seven minutes in.

AIC kept pushing and got the lead to 15 points. Sheyheim Hicks finished with 17 points while Golding had 14 and Franklyn Batista had 12.

Walter Covington came off the bench to score 19 points in 18 minutes on 10 shots.

And even with those scorers, the Ravens kept tapping on the chamber door and would not go quietly into the Springfield night. Franklin Pierce kept chipping away at the lead, and this three by Max Zegarowski with just over three minutes left cut the gap to five.

Zegarowski led the Ravens with 19 points and nine rebounds.

However, this was Xion Golding’s night. He had the dunk to close the first half, and it was this bucket with under a minute to go that sealed up the game.

American International 88, Franklin Pierce 78.
Time of game: 1:29:12.

. . .

What a fun Friday this was. A sub-90 minute game is always a treat because it means there was a flow. One day I will find my Atlantis: the sub-80 minute game. Tonight was not that but still quite fun.

And Springfield is great. It gets forgotten amid the New England cities because its so far west of Boston, but it’s only a 90-minute drive on the Mass Turnpike.

Definitely come here if you can. A tight, little gym in a great city with a lot going on. And it’s my dad’s alma mater, so that has to count for something, right?

 

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