THP #11: The Smallest Gym

January 28, 2020 – Henniker, New Hampshire
New England College vs Tufts University
Men’s Basketball

It was a cold night on the last Tuesday in January. It was the kind of cold that gave you claustrophobia. And it was in a town seemingly removed from the rest of New England.

Henniker has just a shade under 5,000 people and it feels less because the town is so spread out, with just 110 people per square mile.

It has three major claims to fame. The first is that it is the only Henniker on earth. The second is that it is the birthplace of paintball. The third is that the community of Henniker played an early role in the development of American Sign Language.

The town is an enigma. It has all the trappings of a tucked away hamlet in Vermont but it sits just 30 minutes away from Manchester and 20 minutes from Concord, the first and third largest cities in the state, respectively.

Today it is a small, sleepy town buried under the cold of a dark winter’s night.

The downtown starts at town hall and ends at the intersection of the Citizens Bank and the convenience store.

However, on this night there was excitement and theater all around as a fender bender snared the main thoroughfare through Henniker.

The Campus

The New England College campus feels very much like the many other small, secluded colleges that dot New England. Academically, NEC offers programs ranging from associate’s degrees all the way up to a doctoral degree program.

It’s also one of the most diverse universities in the country and was named as one of the 25 most diverse univerisities in the country by Time Magazine in 2018.

Athletically, NEC is a member of the New England Collegiate Conference, a non-football league of small private schools around New England. New England College is the only college in the country with athletic teams called The Pilgrims.

This is THP’s second stop in the NECC after Lesley.

Bridges Gym

The Game

Bridges Gym is small inside and out. With offices wedged into the tiniest of spaces, Bridges is definitely an exercise in maximizing space.

The cramped entryway of Bridges Gym

But nothing can top the size of the gym. Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing a 94-foot court in a room 100-feet long.

The yard between baseline and wall

On the bench side the sideline is only about seven feet from the wall. This is a room devoted to NEC athletics with not a single inch to spare. With a capacity of just under 400 it gets real loud real quick in a room this small.

And tonight was a night for it to get loud as nationally-ranked Tufts University was in town for a rare late-season non-conference game. While the Jumbos came it with the national ranking, NEC was by no means a lightweight. The Pilgrims entered the game 12-6 with talent across the floor.

Here, I want to take a minute to reference Calvin Cheek. The NEC junior from Boston has 385 career steals as of this writing. The all-time NCAA men’s career steals record is currently 452 held by Juvaris Hayes of Merrimack College. Cheek is on pace to break the record and potentially reach 500.

The game was a grind as both teams defended like their lives depended on it. Two squads used to scoring 80 or more, scored in fits and bursts.

Strong defense certainly helped keep the score down.

NEC let an eight-point lead slip away in the second half thanks to timely shooting by the Jumbos.

However, the Pilgrims were able to flip the script and pull back into the lead as the half progressed. Led by 16 points from Jamal Allen and 15 points by Cheek, the Pilgrims were able to consistently stay that one step ahead of Tufts throughout the final 10 minutes.

And when it came down to the final seconds, when Tufts had a chance to tie, NEC buckled down. New England College 59, Tufts 56. Final.

Top Performer: Luke Rogers (Tufts) – 8 pts, 16 rbd, 6 blk

During the game, I was sitting at the table and got to talking with some of the student workers. Everyone there cared. From the spotter to the PA announcer, it was so refreshing to talk with students that were actively involved and cared about the event going on.

One of the guys even offered me some of the french fries that he had with dinner. They were the good crispy ones, the ones you can only find at the local pizzeria. Good fries. Good kids.

 

THP #10: Basketball by The Sea

University of New England vs Gordon College
Women’s Basketball
Biddeford, Maine – January 22, 2020

For the fourth time this season, we are back in The Great State of Maine. I love it here. Maine truly has a little bit of everything for everyone, and today we’re by the beach.

Biddeford, Maine is located about 15 miles south of Portland and is the sixth-largest city in the state by population (21,300). It’s also one of the oldest towns in Maine as it was first visited by Europeans in 1616 and incorporated in 1653, 133 years prior to Portland.

Today, Biddeford is a twin city with Saco, which sits directly across the Saco River. Like many New England cities and towns located on rivers, Biddeford is an old mill town in flux. The last mill closed in 2009, bringing to the close a chapter that lasted more than 150 years.

Biddeford City Hall

Old mills are turning into offices for upstart companies, microbreweries, and small art galleries. Combined with nearby Saco, it creates for a pleasant, quiet corner of New England.

Local Eats

Directly over the bridge in Saco sits Rapid Ray’s. It is a step back in time. Opened in 1953, Rapid Ray’s is a fast food original.

There are no seats in the restaurant. There’s one counter to order and a wraparound counter around the interior of the resturant to stand at and eat.

And the food is bare-bones in all the best ways. Burgers, dogs, fries, onion rings, lobster rolls. All the important New England food groups under one roof and it’s all cooked right in front of you at an inexpensive price.

I went for the standard burger, hot dog, french fry combo with a cold diet Pepsi. On a cold January afternoon it was perfect.

The dining area.
A perfect meal

The Campus

The University of New England is the largest private university in Maine and is an important institution within the state. With satellite campuses in Portland and Tangier, Morocco, as well as a stout online offering, UNE boasts a student body of almost 7,500 with a shade under 2,500 undergrads in Biddeford.

The flagship campus features almost a mile of ocean frontage and is also home to the George and Barbara Bush Center, which focuses on the family’s history with the state of Maine.

UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is the lone medical school in Maine and the College of Dental Medicine is the only dental school in Northern New England.

It’s athletic complex is on the other side of Route 9 from the bulk of the campus. The whole complex features multiple fields, including a blue football field, as well as the Harry Alfond Forum.

The Forum is a massive complex that features a full cafe, training facilities, UNE’s hockey rink, and the gymnasium.

There’ also a unique hall of fame dedicated to UNE’s long, unique history. There’s a nod to former school colors and old Westbrook College, which merged with UNE back in 1991. The original Westbrook campus morphed into UNE’s Portland satellite.

The gymnasium sits 1,200 people and is bright, vibrant, and a great place to catch a game.

The Game

For the first time during The Hoops Project we see a team for the second time. We’ve already seen Gordon College once before and know how good Meghan Foley is.

On this night she did what she does. Her game-high 19 points was almost half of Gordon’s total offense in the game.

It was all Gordon early. The Fighting Scots led by 11 midway through the third quarter and led in the fourth quarter. But the Nor’Easters were too much.

UNE closed the game on a 12-2 run to pick up the victory. UNE 58, Gordon 50. Final.

Time of game: 1:46
Top performer: Abby Cavallaro (UNE) – 17 pts, 5 rbd, 5 stl, 3 ast

As an added bonus, UNE’s men’s team won its game that night over Gordon 98-86. The mascot was quite content.

THP #9: Green Mountain

January 17, 2020 – Middlebury, Vermont
Middlebury College vs Colby College
Men’s Basketball

Vermont is a self-contained universe of small towns. It’s largest city, Burlington, is the smallest largest city in the country with a population just a shade over 42,000. The second-largest city, South Burlington, has just under 18,000 people.

Today the road took me to Middlebury, a town of just 8,500, and the ride took me through tiny towns like Bethel, a place that has less people than my high school.

Downtown Bethel, VT

What Vermont lacks in megacities it makes up for in its charm, and Middlebury is the perfect kind of charming. It’s a town straight out of central casting. A snowy hamlet in the mountains wrapped around an elite university with the history to match.

John Deere, yes, that John Deere, went to college here. Robert Frost taught at the school for more than four decades. That’s just the kind of place that Middlebury College, and the town itself, is.

Middlebury

It’s a bear to get to as it’s an hour off I-89 through land so remote that there is no connectivity of any type. However, once you get there it is a truly wonderful little town.

Local Eats

The Fire and Ice resturant (not connected to the chain) is a local treasure. Opened in 1974, the restaurant is a landmark in town and has the food to back it up. A quirky mishmash of trinkets and stained glass inside, Fire and Ice is a delight.

Every entree comes with a complimentary all-you-can-eat salad bar. The bar has every salad staple along with chickpeas, sushi, and pasta salad among its options.

There is also a well-manicured boat in the middle of the salad room.

The boat.

The dining rooms were exactly what you would think from a cozy, family-owned New England restaurant. Soft lighting, stained glass, books set upon the walls.

What made the night even better was that I was meeting my friend Clayton, A native Vermonter, Clayton is one of many groovy people I’ve met in my sports travels. An author, a traveler, and a member of SABR, Clayton’ the kind of guy who loves his state and loves the theatricality of sports.

He was also picking up dinner that night, and I’m never one to say a negative thing about someone like that.

If you had told me the best cheesesteak I’d ever have would be in Northwest Vermont I’d have said there’s no way. But that sandwich could compete with any of Philly’s best.

The Campus

Middlebury has just 2,500 students but just a shade over $1 billion in its endowment. With that comes resources unavailable to most D3 schools, or for that fact many D1 institutions.

It shows the most with the main athletic building on campus. Enclosed within is the indoor track, pool, ice arena, and the gym. There could very well be more but that’s just what I walked by on my way to the game.

Middlebury’s indoor track complex
Kenyon Ice Arena can hold 2,600 people
The Natatorium

The Game

Pepin Gymnasium is nice and cozy. Sitting a compact 1,200 people, the room is no-frills in the best possible way.

Pepin Gymnasium

One quirk of the room is its baseline. Due to the gym being housed in a Quonset hut-esque building, it means that pillars extend a little too close to the court on the baseline which creates one of the more unique padding setups in college basketball.

The contest was a massive one in Division III. It was 12th-ranked and unbeaten Colby traveling west to play the fifth-ranked Panthers.

The game had an added energy due to Noah Tyson. A native of nearby Castleton, the sophomore had a large and vocal cheering section right behind the Colby bench.

Tyson finished with 11 points and six rebounds. Check out a nifty layup from Tyson late in the first half.

The game was an excellent one. Colby led by 10 in the first half but couldn’t shake the Panthers. Middlebury eventually took the lead, 71-69 with 5:52 left but Colby took the lead back for good less than a minute later and put it away with this three:

Colby 89, Middlebury 82. Final.

Top performer for Colby: Alex Dorion -23 points
Top performer for Middlebury: Jack Farrell – 20 points, six rebounds

Time of game – 1:30

 

THP #8: The Seacoast

January 15, 2020 – Durham, New Hampshire
UAlbany v University of New Hampshire
Men’s Basketball

Basketball is beautiful. Basketball is pain. This is a story about the latter, the agony that only basketball can create.

However, before you can feel the pain you must first know where you are. With that, welcome to Durham, New Hampshire and the flagship campus of the University of New Hampshire.

Durham is a quaint little college town located 70 minutes north of Boston, 15 minutes away from Portsmouth and the beautiful New Hampshire seacoast.

Take a ride with me through Newmarket and into the heart of Durham.

The town

Downtown Durham is basically one road that runs through campus and dumps out you by the exit to get back to the interstate.

There’s plenty of places to eat and shop just like you’d expect in a college town.

Downtown Durham

Look at that photo. See the place on the right with the white storefront? That’s Libby’s, and that’s the place to get a bite to eat in Durham.

It’s a quintessential sports bar with the grub to match.

The main seating area. The bar features a pool table and darts

And the food does not disappoint. I went with a Caesar salad and a black bean burger. The salad was good, and a few more croutons would have moved it into my top four.The burger, though…that was something else. It’s hard to find a good black bean burger that isn’t mush, and Libby’s delivered. Also, waffle fries. Everything is better with waffle fries.

For only about 20 bucks you can get a good bite in a good spot.

The Venue

Lundholm Gymnasium is just that, a gymnasium. It’s a no-frills room that hosts UNH’s basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics teams.

The whole building is the heart of athletics on campus. From team offices to storage to production facilities to the communications department, everything is in that building. It even houses the indoor track, which is across the hall from the gym.

One neat thing is the historical gallery of UNH athletics. Panels upon panels line the wall of former UNH teams, dating as far back as the 19th century.

The Wildcats have little history of success on the basketball court. The women’s program won the America East regular season title in 2017 and the men have only ever advanced as far as the conference tournament semifinals.

The Game

UNH and Albany only play heart attacks. The previous 10 meetings were decided by an average of 6.7 points. Tonight was no different. The teams went back forth throughout.

UNH, which won five games last season, had a chance to hold on and pick up its ninth win of the season. Then this happened.

UNH did have one last chance to close the show. Up a point in the final seconds of overtime, all the Wildcats had to do was find a way to maintain possession. They couldn’t.

That’s just the way basketball be sometimes. Albany 76, UNH 73. Final/OT.

Time of game 2:23
Cheapest ticket price: $7

A few weeks after this game I was back at UNH covering the Wildcats women’s team. After the game I ran into the football coach, Sean McDonnell. He had taken a leave of absence before football season to focus on his health after a cancer diagnosis.

But there he was, looking his spry self and making sure that every chair was perfectly aligned with the tables of the room.

We chatted a bit and caught up. He has the type of personality that makes him your friend after 15 minutes. He was talking about recruits the team had on campus from all over the country while also complaining how people need to take better care of the athletic facilities.

I said he sounded like the “old man yells at cloud” joke from The Simpsons. He gave a good hearty laugh before turning out down the hall to meet the recruits.

Durham. Nice little town.

THP #7: The Edge

January 11, 2020 – Medford, Massachusetts
Lesley vs UMass-Boston
Men’s Basketball

Welcome to the edge. Take one step further and you fall down the abyss. This is the farthest reaches of college basketball. The Kuiper Belt. This is a place where most do not think to tread.

This is Lesley University’s men’s basketball facility. This is the gym at Medford High School.

To understand how I found myself walking around a brutalist concrete building in the northern suburbs of Boston on a hot January afternoon we must first understand the unique identity of Lesley.

Lesley University is located in Cambridge and has roughly 7,400 students but only 2,600 undergraduates. Among its academic offerings, there are programs in specific areas such as expressive therapies, counseling, and fine arts. It isn’t a school driven by its athletic teams.

The school is also located four miles from Medford High, and getting through the Boston traffic can make that drive take almost 40 minutes. Add all these variables into the pot together and you get a team that is winless and a program that has two winning seasons in the last 14.

I chatted with the school’s custodian on my way out of the gym and he told me that Lesley paid to put down a full hardwood court to keep in line with NCAA guidelines as MHS had a rubber court. The track surrounding the court is still rubber.

But at least there’s a Lesley logo on the court.

Getting In

One would think that the best way into a high school would be through the front door. Not today. There was some type of weekend school program so I was told to walk around to the back of the school.

So I did. I walk to the door and went in only to be met by a locked door in the inner vestibule.

Back out I went. It was up a 43-step staircase and through the loading dock before I found a door propped open by a chair and heard the ever-familiar noise of Jordans squeaking on hardwood. I had finally made it.

The Game

There was a curtain drawn midway through the gym and a youth league playing on the other side.

About 10 minutes before tipoff a ref walks over to me as I sit courtside at the midline and jokingly asks how I was able to afford these seats. I responded, laughed, stayed for the first few minutes and moved to the top row. I found $2 under the bleachers so at least the expedition netted me a future Fresca.

There were 25 people in the stands at tipoff.

Lesley basketball is not good. The men’s program is winless this season and won nine or fewer games seven times last decade. The Lynx lost their first two games of the season by nine and 11 points, respectively and have lost the ensuing games by an average of 35.5 points.

And this game went to script. UMass-Boston showed why it’s one of the top teams in the Little East this year. The Beacons jumped out early and never let up. A 10-point lead ballooned to 15 and to 20. UMass Boston won 90-64.

Dasan Cinelli finished with 30 points while Malik Lorquet had a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying by the Lynx either. Chase Howard had 27 points on 8-13 shooting. Kostas Tatsis had 14 points and 10 boards in 23 minutes off the bench. But being minus-15 on the glass and shooting 19-66 will do in anyone.

Time of game: 1:42

THP #6: 4.2 Miles

January 9, 2020 – Beverly, Massachusetts
Endicott v Gordon
WBB/MBB

Sometimes you love your neighbors. Sometimes you want to constantly express your displeasure at their existence.

For Endicott College and Gordon College, close quarters does not make for a pleasant relationship. Located a 12-minute drive apart up Route 127 and through Pride’s Landing and Beverly Farms, it’s exclusively mutual disdain and contempt between the Gulls and the Fighting Scots.

It’s made more intense by the recent success of the two programs. On the men’s side, one of the two schools has made every conference title game since 2012. Gordon also won the league in 2010.

On the women’s side, Endicott was the league runner up in 2019.

Even though the students were away on break, the games drew a nice crowd. This year had the added touch of featuring some of the greatest players either school had ever seen.

The Venue

Located in Beverly, Mass., Endicott College was founded in 1939 and has since grown to be a school of just more than 5,000 people.

Today the school hangs its hat on its internship program as every Endicott student is required to put in thee internships, which means they are learning experientially almost immediately after getting to campus.

Fun fact: Beverly Hills is named after Beverly Farms, the neighborhood where Endicott is located, as it was a favorite vacation spot for then-president William Howard Taft.

The Gulls basketball teams today play at the Post Center. As with many Division III schools, the Post Center is an athletics venue and a student rec center as well as a place for classes and meetings.

A neat quirk of Endicott athletics is that club sports are outwardly treated just as prominently as varsity sports. The club teams get their own tabs on the athletic site just like the varsity teams.

Club teams even get banners in the gym after winning championships.

The Women’s Game

As many Division III schools do in New England, the basketball teams play doubleheaders as a way to cut down on travel costs.

Tonight, the women led off and Gordon was led by Meghan Foley. The day this game was played she was the leading female scorer in all of Division III and the third-leading scorer across the entire NCAA.

As of this writing she has dropped to second and fourth in those categories, but 25.1 points a game is nothing to sneeze at. The native of Malden, Mass. is going to finish as the program’s second-leading scorer.

Meghan Foley (in blue)

And on this night she was a machine. Foley went for 19 points in the first half as the Fighting Scots raced to a 14-point lead.

 

Endicott made it exciting in the second half and even cut it to a one-score game, but they didn’t have Meghan Foley. Foley finished with 33. It was her third-best scoring performance of the season.

Gordon 90, Endicott 82. Final
Time of game – 1:30

The Men’s Game

When it comes to the best scorers in men’s college basketball, the name that instantly comes up is Markus Howard. The Marquette senior has been a scoring machine in his time in Milwaukee and, as of this writing, leads Division I in scoring with 27.3 points a game.

Gordon senior Eric Demers is averaging 33.6 a game. He is currently the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,974 points with 10 games left in the season. And he’s not even the only all-time leading scorer in the game.

Endicott senior Keith Brown has been a ridiculous scorer his whole career. A two-time state champion at Pelham High in Pelham, NH, Brown can reasonably hit a shot from anywhere inside the halfcourt line.

Averaging 21 points a game, as of this writing, Brown sits less than 100 points away from breaking Kamahl Walker’s school record of 1894 and is also an excellent facilitator.

Brown grew from a bench player his freshman year on a Sweet 16 team to a star. He’s scoring less as a senior than as a sophomore, but those dimes are adding up into dollars for the Gulls.

And both players stepped up in what turned out to be a ridiculous game. Brown flashed his court vision and cashed in some dimes.

Gordon led 39-36 at half. Demers had a rough first half with 12 points on 5-14 shooting. Brown had 15.

Now, once the teams flipped ends Demers put the game in his pocket. His second half was 16 points on 5-11 shooting and 4-8 from three. Just look at the nonsense he was pulling out of universe.

It was ridiculous. Forty minutes couldn’t contain the game. Tied at 76, five more was put on the board.

The OT was as nip/tuck as regulation. In the final minute, Endicott found themselves up 86-83 and then this happened.

With the game tied at 86, Endicott was unable to score the ball and gave Gordon a chance to escape Post with a win, and it appeared they did with a layup at the horn by Parker Omslaer.

However, a foul was called. Two made free throws by Endicott with a second left did the trick. Endicott 88, Gordon 86. Final.

Do you think it was a foul?

Eric Demers: 31 points
Keith Brown: 28 pts, 6 rbd, 5 ast, 7 stl

Time of game – 1:44

THP #5: A Eulogy

January 8, 2019
Springfield College @ Babson College MBB
Wellesley, Massachusetts

The first time I ever walked into Staake Gymnasium was December 10, 2015. I was there to disappear.

Four days earlier my mentor, my boss, my friend Bruce had died. He was battling back from cancer and everything seemed to be going well until everything went wrong permanently.

I heard the news third-hand from a friend via a Facebook message. I sat across from my girlfriend of two months, now fiancee, rifling through tweet after tweet confirming it. I wept. She held me.

I never got to say a goodbye to Bruce. We would chat regularly about work and pro wrestling and the bullshit of life. Eighteen years my senior, Bruce was the kind of guy who made you feel at ease while also keeping you honest.

A mutual friend once invited me to join them for drinks. I declined. I don’t regret much in this world, but that’s one of them.

I admired the man and am grateful to have worked with and beside him over the last few years of his life. It was a life lived with no parachute. He once told me that he didn’t expect to see the age of 50. He said that he lived his life as he wanted and when the time came it would come.

I told him it was nonsense. He passed at 42.

Bruce was just a sports writer and so much more at the same time. He gave a shit. Whether you were an Olympian or some high school sophomore playing two minutes a night, Bruce cared.  It’s why his wake was attended by hundreds. He left a mark, and they came to pay respects.

Death leaves holes. People tell you that time heals them and that you move on. You never move on; you change direction. The emotional scar remains forever. You continue growing and expanding your world, and that scar stays with you the whole time.

I miss Bruce. I’d love to ask him so many things. I’d love to listen to him again. I’d love to sit in some hockey rink somewhere solving the problems of the world. I miss my friend.

It was in that emotional swirl that I first came to Babson to watch basketball.

Division III basketball is one of my happiest places. A place untainted by the mass corporatization of sports. A place where five dollars can get you into an NCAA tournament game. A place hidden in plain sight.

It’s a home for me. And considering where I was I wanted to feel home. The game did not disappoint.

I’ll never forget that night. I’ll never forget Bruce. Pain and hurt are side effects of love and respect, and I will gladly pay that price.

The Game

Follow Division III basketball enough and you’ll notice a trend: quality shooters. The level of shooting in Division III can match most D1 players at its height.The difference between top and bottom is greater than in Division I, but the quality is there.

When I think of D-III baksetball I think of Aaron Toomey (Amherst), Marcos Echevarria (Nichols) and Babson’s Joey Flannery, who graduated in 2017 with 2,620 points, two final fours, and a national title.

Enter Jake Ross. The 6’4 senior from Springfield College is averaging 27.4 points and 11 rebounds a game this season, and on this night it will be a tall task as he takes the #25-ranked Pride to play the #14-ranked Beavers. It’s a league game too. Both play in the NEWMAC (New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference).

Staake Gymnasium (pronounced STAH-key), is a small place. Banners hang about and a short running track loops the hardwood from the floor above. A few joggers log laps during the contest.

The game itself is a banger by any measure. Babson leads 40-39 at halftime thanks to 20 points from Andrew Jaworski. His 14.5 a game is a solid number but he was playing in a  different universe.He finished with 32

Ross had the quietest 10 points you’ll ever see.

The second half, though, was different. Springfield jumped to a quick lead and maintained it. Ross heated up.

The lead flipped nine times in the final 20 minutes.

Ross had two free throws late to put the Pride up four. And it was Ross who pulled down the rebound on a Crew Ainge three at the horn, that would have tied it, to seal the win.

Springfield 84, Babson 81. Final.

Admission Price: Free
Time of Game: 1:30