THP #21: AJ Edwards

February 20, 2021 – Willimantic, Connecticut
Eastern Connecticut State vs UMass-Dartmouth
Men’s Basketball

“Whatchu mean walk the earth?”

“You know. Like Caine in Kung Fu. Walk from place to place. Meet people. Get in adventures.”

This is not, nor has this ever really been, a basketball blog. Sure, basketball is the glue that binds it all, but this is a blog dedicated to the fact that there is weird shit everywhere.

I really dislike this ideal pushed on young people in America that in order to have fully lived a life you must “find yourself” somewhere. Inevitably, that “somewhere” involves a flight or two. The destination always changes but the desired end goal is always the same: level up in a way you cannot do at home.

I’d rather stay home and learn where I live. New England isn’t all that big, but boy is there a lot of weird in these six small states. Wherever you are there will always be some weird nearby. Go find it.

Today I found myself in a charmingly named city of frogs. Can’t get much weirder than that.

Willimantic. What a lovely word to say. Located on the historic land of the Mohegans, Willimantic’s name comes from Algonquian meaning either “land of the swift running water” or “place near the evergreen swamp.”

It is currently a part of the town of Windham in northeast Connecticut, and it’s a town that’s got bridges.

The Willimantic Footbridge just looks cool. I’m a sucker for riveted iron bridges and this looks the part. Six-hundred feet long, and built in 1906, it’s the only footbridge in New England that spans both a river…

and a railroad.

But about those frogs. The frogs are a symbol of the city and are immortalized in statues around the town. The main road bridge over the river features two copper frogs at each end of the bridge.

Thread City Crossing

The frogs sit atop spools of thread, a nod to the town’s long textile history. But the frog story is far stranger.

The tale goes that in 1754 the townsfolk of Willimantic were tense and on edge as the French and Indian War had just begun. The people were expecting an attack in the near future.

That year there had been a drought and there was little water left for the frogs in nearby Follett Pond. The frogs began attacking each other, and the noise was so great that the townspeople thought they themselves were under attack and took up arms and all sorts of commotion was made.

There were cries of armageddon. There were people running with guns in the streets. Riders on horseback crested the hill ready for the fight. Nothing.

The next day the town awoke to find hundreds of dead frogs in the pond. The town was ridiculed throughout the colonies and the town seal was made to be a bullfrog.

Today, the apocryphal story is a beloved part of the town folklore and the pond has been renamed Frog Pond.

Weird shit’s everywhere.

The Good Eats

Connecticut food culture is everything New Jersey puffs its chest about, but without brashness. The Nutmeg state lets the pizza and burgers and diners and everything else stand on its own and stand out from the field without a need to tell everyone about it.

And when it comes to diners, Blondie’s is one of the best.

Located about five minutes from campus, it was a quintessential diner and it was a busy Saturday morning on this day.

One of my problems with diners is that sometimes the portions are insanity. I’m a big dude, and sometimes it’s just too much. I want to be able to clean a plate and not feel like death 20 minutes later.

Blondie’s balanced the line perfectly. I got a deluxe breakfast (not sure the name on the menu but that’s what I’m calling it) of a chocolate-chip pancake, eggs, sausage, toast, and home fries.

This is what a diner breakfast is supposed to be. They also had sausage patties, the supreme version of breakfast sausage, which was a nice addition to the plate.

Go to Blondie’s. Eat some food. it’s a good time.

The Campus

Eastern Connecticut State was founded in 1889. It grew from being a normal school and teacher’s college into a university, a status it gained in 1983.

Today, the campus is broken into the sections, North, South, and the sports complex which is about two miles from the bulk of the main campus.

After the game I got to take a walk around North Campus and she was a looker.

Smith Library
Foster Clock Tower
Science Building

On the side of the science building was Windframe, a kinetic sculpture by Tim Prentice that came alive in the wind.

The Game

Geissler Gymnasium sits on the second floor of the Sports Center, which sits a short walk from the library.

The first thing you notice when you get to the second floor is the lobby area. It’s massive. It’s well-lit, and it feels like a Division 1 space in every way.

Geissler Gym sits about 2,000 people when full and is exactly what you think of when you think of a D3 gym. It smells of lacquered wood. The bleachers creak with every step. It’s warm even in the dead winter.

I love places like this.

As you can see, the bleachers were only partially open to allow for the webcasting team to have some space and for the broadcasters to be able to get up top to work.

It also gave me the chance to dangle my feet off the edge of the bleachers while watching the game. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do that again.

Press box

Today the Warriors were hosting the UMass-Dartmouth Corsairs. Even without a crowd, the pregame had a good vibe to it.

Early on the game was fast and fun. The teams traded buckets and UMass-Dartmouth went into the under-12 media timeout up 19-18.

It was college basketball in its purest form. There was no PA announcer. No national anthem. No lineups. No one to read the scorers and the fouls. It was just the game.

During the manic opening I turned on the camera and just wanted to capture some of the game’s flow. What I got was more than two minutes of serenity. Enjoy.

While the beginning was electric, eventually the Corsairs took over.The lead kept growing throughout the half. By the time intermission rolled around, UMD was up 11 points and firmly in control of the game.

And the lead just kept getting bigger. With nine minutes left, the Corsairs had opened it up to 21 points and were taking the game for a walk.

The Warriors were able to close it down a little, but this nifty layup by Adam Seablom but UMD up 14 with 6:30 to go.

And it’s at this point in time that we meet the protagonist of this story, AJ Edwards.

Edwards, a freshman from New Haven, left high school as his program’s all-time leading scorer. However, this afternoon, 30 minutes into the game, he had yet to crack the egg next to his number on the scoreboard.

And then AJ Edwards took the rock and turned the game into his own personal mountain to conquer.

Edwards scored 15 points in the final seven minutes of the second half. And every time he touched the ball he kept escalating.

He even found a way to crossover out of a steal. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in college basketball.

And on the back of Edwards, the Warriors chipped away at the lead. It shrank and shrank some more until a pair of free throws from Edwards put Eastern up a bucket with 19 seconds left.

But UMD did have a shot, and this was the top team in the conference.

Overtime it was, tied at 77. And like in regulation, the Corsairs sprinted ahead, leading by four just over two minutes into overtime.

But only one team had AJ Edwards.

But even Edwards couldn’t get the Warriors to turn the corner. The Warriors trailed by four inside the final minute of overtime and were down 85-83 with 40 seconds left.

And then this happened.

AJ Edwards finds Max Lee for the game-winning three. It was Lee’s only points of the game.

Eastern Connecticut State 86, UMass-Dartmouth 85. Final, overtime.

AJ Edwards: 24 points, five steals, four assists in 24 minutes off the bench.

This is all I ever want from sports. For a few fleeting minutes on a Saturday afternoon nothing else mattered. It was just AJ Edwards, an orange ball, and the entirety of the universe on a hardwood floor.

Four days after beating UMD, the Warriors hosted Keene State. It was another back and forth affair won by Eastern 85-83 in overtime. AJ Edwards hit the game-tying three at the end of regulation. He finished with 24 points.

 

 

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.