THP #29: Hometown Check-in

January 25, 2022 – Worcester, Massachusetts
Assumption vs Southern Connecticut State
Women’s Basketball

This was the first of four stops in my adopted hometown of Worcester. My wife and I moved into our house here in July, 2021. With keeping it local for this blog I wanted to look back at the first quarter of The Hoops Project thus far and take stock in what this project is and what I hope for it to become.

The Hoops Project started as a pie-in-the-sky idea in the summer of 2019. The idea, in my head, was to go see a game at all 120 four-year colleges in New England and write a travelogue-esque blog about each one.

It has since become a personal monastic journey into myself with basketball as the crux that drives it forward. Those early posts I thought I was very important by documenting these places and these schools. This blog is important to me, sure, and it’s a footnote of a footnote in the long history of college basketball in America at best.

I love this project. In a way I look at it as my first kid. I’ve had a long career in sports media. I had my first byline in 2008 at the age of 16. I’ve covered NCAA tournaments across all sorts of sports, the NHL, the NBA. I’ve seen all sorts of future pros back in their high school days. I’ve done some TV as well.

Almost all of it runs together. All the football and field hockey and lacrosse and soccer and hockey games have been great experiences; they’re just a jumbled mess of the last 14 years of my life to one degree or another.

With this, it is my own. I have two friends who give me some feedback in the process, but other than that it all comes from me for me. I’m grateful to be in a position to be able to do this. I feel more complete as me when I’m on the road going off to these far-flung places.

So far I’ve driven just roughly 4,500 miles (or just about the distance from my home in Worcester to Anchorage) and added another three miles by foot to get to this project to where it is today. And in all of that travel I’ve learned a few things about myself, basketball, and New England.

I’m more comfortable being alone at a game

Being a high school sports writer makes for many a lonely night on the road. However, when I have my notebook and my laptop I’m working. Like many others, when I’m working I just want to do work and go home.

However, I never would go to a game myself alone as a spectator. It felt wrong. A game should be experienced with a group, with others. But I learned to deeply love being invisible in the crowd.

I’m still a part of the energy and vibe of the crowd, and I can just do my own thing when I want. If I want to chat someone up I can. If I want to sit in a corner and just enjoy ball I can. It’s incredibly freeing to be able to enjoy a game exclusively on your own terms. I recommend everyone try it at least once. It’s the ultimate in relaxation.

Maine is fucking huge

New England is the area of the country with all the small states, but Maine is sneaky big and almost the size of the other five New England states combined.

Maine’s total area: 35,380 square miles
MA, NH, CT, RI, & VT combined: 36, 608 square miles

Maine is bigger than South Carolina and almost the same size as Indiana. That feels so wrong to say, but it’s the truth. My first trip was to Fort Kent, the town atop the East Coast and more north than Montreal and Quebec City.

At the time I was living just north of Boston and it was 420 miles each way to Fort Kent. For context, if I had driven south that same distance I would have ended in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington.

Traveling the Pine Tree State is no joke. I love The Great State of Maine.

I’ve become a keen follower of higher ed in the region.

The engine that drives this project is college basketball. There needs to be colleges with teams to travel to. Since the project started a handful of schools have closed up shop, and the initial 120 has dwindled to 114. Small colleges like Pine Manor and Becker and Southern Vermont and Newbury are all gone to the universe now.

My current philosophy is to hit as many small private schools as I can as soon as I can. Boston College and UConn will be there in 10-20 years. Will small schools like Rivier or Eastern Nazarene still exist in that time? Who knows? That’s why I’m chasing them now so I’m not regretting missing a school like I did with Pine Manor and Becker.

My white whales

There are two things I’m desperately trying to see on this journey. The first is a buzzer beater at the horn to win a game. I came damn close once before, but the shot didn’t end the game. I’d just love to be able to document one buzzer beater for this series.

The other is a game that goes under 80 minutes in length. While I wasn’t officially timing it like I do now, the game at Fitchburg State went 81 minutes and would have gone under if the losing coach hadn’t called a timeout with less than a minute to go.

It’s so coveted because it takes very specific circumstances to occur. I’ve seen plenty of games go under 90 minutes, but to have those last 10 off is ridiculously difficult.

It needs to be a D2 or D3 game without commercial breaks. The game needs to be close enough to keep the starters in for most of it but spread out just enough so that the end of the game doesn’t become a calvalcade of timeouts and fouls. The refs need to keep the whistles to a minimum and free throws need to almost be non-existent.

It’s such a perfect storm of circumstances to occur that I’ve become enamored by the concept of it. One day. Hopefully.

And with that, here’s your moment with Bella.

The Good Eats

Worcester is a great food town. And in the three future stops in town I’ll be exploring it all from a nationally-ranked diner, to one of the best hot dogs in New England. But today, it was chain eating.

D’Angelo/Papa Gino’s (two parts of one larger company) is a New England-specific chain offering pizza and sandwiches. It’s one of my favorite places to get a sandwich, and the pizza is solid too.

I love fast food too much and always enjoy trying chains around the country when I travel. Zaxby’s and Raising Cane’s are my favorites, although the later does exist in Boston, but ask someone for a New England fast food chain and the answer you’ll almost always get is Dunkin Donuts.

I don’t drink coffee and I like good donuts and muffins so I don’t patronize Dunks all that much. However, D’Angelo makes damn good sandwiches that are vastly superior to Subway or a place like Firehouse.

Considering it was a combo restaurant I got a little of each. It was a slice of cheese and a Korean barbecue steak sandwich.

It’s a good slice. Of all the chain pizza places this is the one I would always take, hands down. Unlike the other pizza papa, it tastes like good pizza and not a cardboard box.

As a sports writer, when you’re a high-level game (D1 college, pros, lower division NCAA tournaments) there’s always some sort of meal for the media and the arena staff. Some are catered. Some are just sandwiches from a local shop. All are passable to excellent. The only time I’ve ever forgone the free meal was when it was Papa John’s pizza. Had it once, never again. Would rather pay than eat it for free.

The sandwich rules. Sirloin, American cheese, cilantro, Sriracha cole slaw, and a spicy Korean BBQ sauce on a toasted sub roll. It’s just so damn good that I can’t recommend it enough. With the chips and drink it is, in my opinion, a perfect meal.

The Campus

Assumption University (Assumption College until 2020) is one of four colleges inside Worcester limits and the lone school with Division II sports.

Founded in 1904 by the Augustinians of the Assumption, the college was located in North Worcester and educated mainly local men of French-Canadian descent.

The famous Worcester tornado of 1953 ripped through and destroyed a good chunk of the campus, and the college moved to its current location on the west side of town in 1956. The old campus is now home to Quinsigamond Community College.

With an undergraduate enrollment just under 2,000, it’s a small and cozy campus. Tsotsis Family Academic Center

Tsotsis Family Academic Center

Emmanuel D’Alzon Library
Richard J. and Sophia Catrambone Health Sciences Building
Chapel of The Holy Spirit

Two types of campuses always strike me as quintessential New England: The small, ivory towers liberal arts school and the small Catholic college. Assumption definitely falls into the latter with a mix of mid-50s brick architecture and newer, glassy modern buildings.

I liked it and definitely want to be back. The football field is named after famous alum, and noted Southerner, Brian Kelly. The school has a lovely charm tucked away in a residential section of the city. Yes, Worcester has 200,000 people but Assumption is anything but a “city” school.

The Game

Separated by a campus road, the Plourde Recreation Center and Laska Gymnasium are the beating heart of Greyhounds athletics and wellness. The Plourde is home to the swim team and houses fitness rooms, boxing and fitness classes, and is the place for the student body to workout.

Laska Gym, named for longtime basketball coach Andrew Laska, is the beating heart of the athletic program. Home to offices, locker rooms, and the gymnasium, Greyhound sports are powered by Laska.

Laska Gymnasium

And they have a helluva logo.

The gym itself is unique in that it’s one of the few lower-division facilities in the region with seating on all four sides. Everything is bright and the school colors of blue & white.

A quirk of the gym are placards adorning the walls on either side with the names of fellow Northeast-10 conference members. However, they need an update. As you can see below, UMass-Lowell is still on the wall despite having transitioned up to Division 1 almost a decage ago.

Merrimack, which went D1 in 2019, was on a placard on the opposite side of the gym paired with LeMoyne.

The game itself featured a cross-division matchup with the Hounds hosting the SCSU Owls. Southern Connecticut came ready to play with Jessica Fressle, who ranked in the top-60 nationally in both points and rebounds per game.

And SCSU came ready to go.

Early on, the Greyhounds opened up a seven-point lead thanks to strong shooting and good ball movement. But thanks to seven points from Fressle, the Owls were able to close the gap to one point by the end of the first quarter.

This Katie Williamson bucket early in the second quarter cut it to 18-16 Assumption.

But then, like greyhounds tend to do, Assumption raced away. Assumption scored 11 points in the next 1:48 to open a 13-point lead. Lauren Hammersley had a pair of triples. Meghan Cramb had a three. And just like that, the rout was on.

The lead stayed in the teens all the way to halftime. Assumption kept finding ways to score, and the Owls couldn’t figure out the best way to adjust to the Greyhounds. Hammersley had 11 of her 14 points for Assumption in the second quarter.

Any chance of a comeback after halftime was extinguished almost immediately. Assumption scored the first 10 points out of the break to take a 50-25 lead.

And that was it. The rest of the game was maintenance from Assumption. The Owls never cut the deficit to less than 20, and Assumption led by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter.

Even with an excellent 16-point, 14-rebound performance from Fressle, Southern Connecticut could do nothing except do themselves in. The Owls turned the ball over 23 times and shot just 32.1 percent from the field.

Assumption had 17 assists, SCSU had 6. Assumption had 32 points off the bench, SCSU had one. Assumption had 20 offensive rebounds, SCSU had 13.

It was all Greyhounds all day as they rolled in a rout.

Assumption 76, Southern Connecticut State 48. Final.
Time of game: 1:36:16
Player of the game: Marina Callahan (Assumption) – 14 pts, 10 rbd, 5 ast, 2 blk

I certainly enjoyed the short drive to this one, and Division II basketball is the four-leaf clover of New England. With so few programs it’s always a treat to see and experience. The Greyhound women have a long history of success.

Earlier this season Kerry Phayre, now in her 26th season, notched her 400th win as coach of Assumption. She’s made multiple NCAA tournaments and has kept Assumption in the thick of the Northeast-10 hunt for years.

I love supporting schools like this. I love getting out to the D2 and D3 campuses and shining a light on them. Duke and Ohio State and UCLA will get plenty of publicity, but your local small school won’t. Go support them. You’ll be glad you did.

Thanks for reading. Here’s one for the road, and it’s one I listen to every time I’m traveling for The Hoops Project.

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