March 11, 2023 – Goffstown, New Hampshire
Saint Anselm vs Caldwell
D2 NCAA Tournament – First Round
I walk into the gym and immediately spot his American flag button up. I walk over and say hi to Al St. Louis, the world record holder for most national anthems sung in a year (500 in 2016), and we catch up for a minute. I’ve known him for years and tell him I’m excited to hear him sing.
He tells me I missed it. I’m late. They did it 13 minutes before the game. I’m a bit bummed but a long day beckons for both of us.
Al will make the drive later to sing at Harvard hockey’s playoff game in Boston. And I’m here all day in Goffstown, New Hampshire. It’s the NCAA Division 2 East Regional, and there is so much going on.
Where are we?
Saint Anselm College hosts for the second time. In 2019 the Hawks hosted for the first time and went all the way to the Final Four.
This small Benedictine college of roughly 2,000 students sits at the point where the cities of Manchester, Goffstown, and Bedford meet.
Saint Anselm Abbey is on the grounds and the monks there run and operate the college. Opened in 1888, it’s the third-oldest Catholic college in the country. The head of the abbey, or the Abbot, is also the chancellor of the college.
It’s a small, quaint campus that’s home to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, an outgrowth of the state’s long history as the country’s first primary. There have even been debates at Sullivan Arena, the school’s on-campus hockey facility.
The Quirks of The D2 Tournament
The Division 2 tournament is unlike either of the other two divisions. Division 1 is, of course, the national circus with teams criss-crossing the country for their games.
Division 3 is regionalized but things can bend as needed. This year California Lutheran was flown east for a first round game at Rowan in New Jersey and NYU was sent out to Mount Union in Ohio.
Division 2, though, is the outlier. The tournament is explicitly hyper-regionalized. And, unlike the divisions on either side of it, culminates in an Elite 8 instead of Final 4.
Eight regions play over the course of a weekend. First round on Saturday, Round of 32 on Sunday, and the Sweet 16 on Tuesday. The eight regional champs then go to the Elite Eight site eight days later and go Wednesday/Thursday/Saturday to determine a champion.
In the process all eight teams are re-seeded.
This is the East region, comprised of the Northeast-10, Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, and East Coast Conference. The top five seeds all come from the NE-10 (Saint Anselm, Bentley, Southern New Hampshire, Pace, New Haven). The CACC sent Dominican and Caldwell, and the ECC sent its champion, St. Thomas Aquinas College.
Setting The Scene
Stoutenburgh Gym has been the home of Saint Anselm basketball for decades and is the heart of Hawks athletics.
Able to hold around 1,400 people, Stoutenburgh is an intimate place to watch college basketball.
However, this weekend it is balancing both an NCAA tournament and the comings and goings of the athletic department as a whole. That’s where Griffin Spencer and his staff come in.
Spencer has been St A’s since 2017 as the school’s director of athletic communications. For him, the regional truly started weeks prior with bid preparation.
“Everybody in the weeks leading up to the selection show needs to decide if they’re able to host. Some schools say we can’t because we don’t have the facility, we don’t have the locker room space,” Spencer said. “They might have a pre-planned six-team lacrosse tournament and say sorry, we can’t. Luckily, our administration is always all in on trying to host because it’s a game changer.”
Associate director of athletics Neil Duval spearheads the bidding process where no stone is left unturned. Everything from broadcasting and officials facilities down to the pay for the student workers selling popcorn or taking tickets is accounted for. As long as it all looks good, the NCAA signs off on it.
Those paychecks will come from Saint Anselm, and the school will then send an expenses list to the NCAA and be reimbursed after the regional.
But what about the teams? Three are in from New York and one from New Jersey. Who organizes travel and lodging? It’s a team effort.
“Each school’s administrative and coaching staff will handle [travel], but we arranged the lodging,” Spencer said. “Everyone’s down at the Doubletree in downtown Manchester. When we put in to bid we have to say ‘we’ve called and soft reserved’. The NCAA tells you what each team gets [in terms of rooms].
For Spencer, the weekend would need to include balancing all this along with the regular Saturday schedule. Men’s lacrosse had a game at 1 p.m. , and that wasn’t going to stop even with the tournament on campus.
A soccer scrimmage was scheduled for that afternoon and all the teams had to be taken care of along with media and operational staff, some who would be there for upwards of 12 hours.
This is where Griffin leans on his comms team and a stable of student workers to help the day flow easily.
“Luckily Nick [Boschen], our assistant SID has done a great job. He ran our lacrosse game and had some students work there,” Spencer said. “This is also a great opportunity for our student workers. We’re cycling them in and out. Some have been out in the broadcast truck. It’s for a lot of our workers and it’s been a great experience.”
It’s a tight fit at Stoutenburgh, and Spencer needs to make sure everyone can fit.
During the day, Griffin is buzzing around the building making sure all the T’s are crossed and I’s dotted. He rarely takes off his headset throughout the day which connects him to the scorer’s table at the touch of a button. It only comes off so he can adjust his airpod underneath the headset, which keeps him locked in to any phone calls coming his way.
Oh, and he maintains that setup while running postgame press conferences which are held in a makeshift interview room in room 132 inside the school’s Career Development Center which is in the adjoining student building.
Even with managing all this, and spinning all these plates at the same time, Spencer is not the person in charge on campus. In fact, no one connected with the Saint Anselm is in charge. That role falls on the shoulders of the NCAA site representative.
“He’s the official liaison. There’s nobody here from NCAA headquarters, but he has a direct line to Indianapolis,” Spencer said. “Mostly he’s had to handle stuff like being here for all the practices. You only get a certain amount of time [the day before] to practice on this court, and it’s strictly enforced. You pretty much can’t look at the court unless he says so. He’s more in charge than anybody on this campus right now. Even if our athletic director came in.”
Despite the balancing act, Griffin said he loves it. It’s ironic that the quietest times for him are when the games are in session. But the crowds all day were good, and Spencer took pride in putting on a good show.
“It’s really excited because it’s all about the student-athlete experience and our campus community. They’ve come out all year and supported all of our teams. We need to provide a good experience for everyone across campus, fans, parents.
“I’m enjoying it. When you see it all kind of come together, the weeks of planning and working with everyone in the administration. Once you’re here you can kind of relax during the game.”
The Media Setup
I’ve covered sports now for 15 years. When I’m at a big event like this all I want is for everything to make sense and be straightforward. Griffin and his team made this an enjoyable experience, and it’s memorable because of the unique setup of the building.
Stoutenburgh is quite small, as seen in the cramped front lobby.
The tight confines continue in the gym where the scorer’s table abuts a wall, and the press box is more of a two-tiered bird’s nest kitty cornered above a hoop. You get a great look at the nest in this clip from the SNHU-Dominican game earlier in the day.
When you’re up in the nest it’s definitely a tight fit.
And the seats in the nest tip you off to the building’s age. Opened in 1960, the little lamps definitely give off a 60s vibe.
Any major event will have a media/staff room. Here there will be food and drinks and a place to work away from the chaos of the main arena. This was no exception.
Unlike D1 tournaments, this media room was in the meeting room for the student government organization.
However, to get there was a walk that went into another building, past the merch table, and down a flight of stairs. It’s all about working with the space you have in D2 and D3.
On a trip to the media room I walked out the door and a woman was going on at the students working the merch table about how it was an injustice that it was difficult to find the clothes to buy.
I made the mistake of commenting that she can buy what she wants and tell her friends in the gym where to go. It was at that point that I found myself eye to eye with a middle-aged women with a petty axe to grind. Oh, and she had an eyepatch covering her left eye.
She started chewing me out and the same injustice. Upon seeing my media badge, and thinking I was staff, she implored me to move the merch stand. I simply said “Miss, I don’t work here” and walked down the stairs.
When I came back up, she was having the same conversation with Griffin. He was saying the same things I did.
The last time I went down to the media room, to dine on some Subway sandwiches, I struck up a conversation with one of the people working on the broadcast crew. He was from Bridgewater Television.
That got me thinking: what the hell are they doing here?
Streaming The Regional
Bridgewater Television had the assignment of streaming all seven games of the regional. Now this was confusing because why would a public access station be producing this event? And why would a public access station from a town in Massachusetts, 90 minutes away from Saint Anselm, be producing this event?
Turns out having the resources and knowing the right people can go a long way.
“Jonathan Harper at the time was the commissioner of the NE-10, and he was from Bridgewater, Mass,” Jeff Fowler, BTV station manager said. “He got us involved and we’ve been doing it ever since. He transferred to the CACC so that’s how we got involved with them.”
With a production truck that cost roughly $1 million, BTV was running a five-camera shoot complete with a three-man broadcast team and full replay capability.
The majority of the team making it work was a mix of freelancers, volunteers, and students.
“We use this as an educational opportunity for our volunteers,” Fowler said. “We had a student who went through this program who became the producer for the Today Show and NBC Nightly News. Students have gone through and have gone onto work at the local networks.
“We receive funding from Comcast. They are required by law to provide up to five percent of their revenue. We don’t have much of a payroll; I’d say 95 percent of our production is volunteer, and we have our board of directors. Some have been volunteers for close to 30 years. We invest a lot of money in the equipment. We try to buy equipment that students will use at the next level so it’s an easy transition.”
One look inside the truck and you can immediately tell the Fowler isn’t blowing smoke about the equipment. It might be cramped for the team of three inside but everything is there to produce an A-level show.
Fowler, who has been at the station since 2001, kept emphasizing how much the station is used as an educational venture. When not out at tentpole events like the NCAAs, BTV broadcasts games from Bridgewater State, Bridgewater-Raynham High School, and several games a summer for the local summer college wood-bat team, the Brockton Rox.
The Best Coach In New England
Keith Dickson might be the best coach in the country you haven’t heard of. Leading the Hawks for 37 years, Dickson has built a resume unmatched by almost any other coach in the country.
Dickson had 703 wins entering the tournament. The banners that hang throughout Stoutenburgh show how consistent his teams have been.
With the exception of the NCAA tournament appearances in 1960, 1962, and 1970 every one of those conference titles and tournament appearances all happened during the Keith Dickson era.
Dickson’s best season came in 2019 when his Hawks led by Tim Guers (School’s all-time leading scorer with 2,327 points) and Cody Ball (1,433 points) made it to the Final Four. Chris Paul , no not that one, was a freshman on that team; he finished his career with 1,947 points, good for fifth all-time.
Finding talent like that at the D2 can be quite difficult because, as Dickson readily said, if a kid gets a D1 scholarship offer they’re almost always going to take it.
“Being honest, every high school basketball player wants to play Division I, and those kids were no different,” Dickson said. “If they had a Division I scholarship offer we probably wouldn’t have got them, but they didn’t. Fortunately for us when they came here they realized what a great opportunity it was for them. You get to play right away, you’re part of a great culture. We play in big games and have won a lot of big games.”
This marks the 10th straight NCAA appearance for Dickson and his Hawks. This century has been kind to the program, starting with an Elite Eight run in 2000 and Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2006 and 2014 to go with the Final Four.
“When we do make a regional you live in the moment,” Dickson said. “I know how hard it is, and how many teams would still want to be playing right now. For the last 10 years in a row we’ve been in the regional; it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s something we’re proud of and don’t take for granted.”
All this brought me back to a question I’d had kicking in my head since I first started covering the program more than half a decade ago: in a profession where so many chase jobs across the country, why had he stayed here?
Simple: He liked working here.
“When I took this job I was never interested in bouncing around, moving up a level. I played Division I. It didn’t mean anything to me,” Dickson said. “It wasn’t important. What I wanted was to find a place where I could coach good people, play the way I want to play, and win basketball games. Right away it was evident that Saint and Keith Dickson were a good fit, and I never wavered from that.
“If I had gone someplace like a low Division I and lost games I would be a miserable human being, and I probably would have got out of coaching. I think it’s a testament to the fact that when you’ve got a good thing and it’s a good fit [you keep it]. This has just been a match made in heaven.”
The D2 regional is unique in terms of scheduling and affordability. Where else can you see four games in a day for $20? It really is the best deal in town.
The Saturday layout is broken into two sessions. The early session features the 2 v 7 and 3 v 6 matchups. Of course, you’d expect the late session to start with the 4 v 5 game and end the day with the host 1-seed playing the eight. However, those games are flipped in order to, in theory, give the one seed more rest before the second-round game on Sunday night.
Even though Saint Anselm and Caldwell share the region it was just the third time they had ever played. Despite little history between the two, the gym was white hot from the tip and ready to burst.
Caldwell scored the next four points to take the lead as the game settled in. And a funny thing happened: the Cougars kept finding ways to maintain the lead.
With eight minutes left in the half Caldwell was up six. This Mark Heber drive put them up eight. Heber never came off the court and finished with 19 points.
Just 36 seconds later the Cougars were up a dozen and the gym got very uneasy.
The Hawks responded with a three but then…
Caldwell kept hitting key shots but the Hawks played damage control, going into the half down 14.
Even with their team up against the wall, the crowd was all in for the Hawks, and they let Caldwell have it hard throughout the night.
What started as a few students casually chirping during timeouts…
Eventually evolved into the duality of man.
Just over four minutes into the second half Caldwell had pushed the lead to 15.A big-time jam from Landon Shivers got the Cougars there.
Then the one seed started playing like the top team in the region.
Zac Taylor made it a nine-point game on the putback. The building had been revived.
A three-point play from Tyler Arbuckle cut it to seven. He would finish with 21 points and seven rebounds.
As the crowd got louder Derrick Bueno got better. He only played 22 minutes off the bench for Caldwell but every point he scored seemed to suck the life out of Stoutenburgh.
His answer to Arbuckle’s three-point play showed everything about him.
Bueno was great, and we’ll get back to him, but the Hawk comeback was alive and well in Goffstown.
And Arbuckle wasn’t done. The veteran point guard stayed in charge and took it himself to make it a three-point game with seven minutes left.
A pair of free throws from Miles Tention 30 seconds later made it 57-56 Caldwell with 6:40 to play.
I hadn’t been in a gym that loud in a long time. It’s the best feeling being in that energy, that cauldron of cacophony. It’s the vibe I chase.
However, Bueno and Darnell Evans were dead set on killing the vibes.
It started with this Evans layup followed by Bueno, again, sucking the life out of the room.
And the Evans-Bueno connection linked up for a devastating layup.
Evans and Bueno would combine to score 10 consecutive points while the Cougars held Saint Anselm scoreless for more than four minutes.
And that was it. The upset was sealed. Evans was prolific with 22 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and four steals.
Caldwell 80, Saint Anselm 71. Final. It was just third win by an eight seed over the one in the history of the East Region.
Player of the Game: Derrick Bueno (CU) – 17 points
Time of Game: 1:48:00
After the postgame press conference as people were milling around chatting someone jokingly said under their breath “Losing that game really fucks up the tournament.”
Griffin was hunched over the laptop uploading the video files. The Hawks may have lost but he still had three more games and two more days to manage. Ticket sales would surely drop as a result of the loss too. And he had to hustle to get back to the gym to make sure the last game of the day between Pace and New Haven went smoothly.
The D2 tournament is brutal that way: win or lose, it just keeps rolling on.
And that is a wrap on season four of The Hoops Project. Eleven stops, three states, all three divisions, and the birth of my daughter in the middle of it all.
This project helped give me a type of purpose I didn’t know I needed the last few years, especially through the pandemic. I love this and am grateful to be able to have this in my life. I can’t wait until I can bring Claire along.
Before I go off into the world of sunshine and outside I want to thank my friend Stephen Abodeely for sharing some of his photos from the game. He’s a phenomenal person and an excellent live events photographer. You can find his work online at stabodeely.com.
He’s also great company to stay immature with.
That’s all for this year. Here’s one for the road.