THP #20: A Warm Embrace

February 10, 2021 – Keene, New Hampshire
Keene State vs Eastern Connecticut State
Men’s Basketball

Division III basketball is my happiest place. It feels like it’s wholly, and totally mine. Sure, there’s more than 400 D3 programs across the country but nearly a fifth are in New England alone.

The last game I was at before the pandemic was March 7. It was the second round of the D3 men’s tournament, Tufts vs RPI. A great game won by Tufts in front of a packed house. Five days later the country shut down.

There were a lot of tears last March for what was lost. It wasn’t because I had lost money from assignments getting cancelled. It was losing the anchor points in my life. Every March for as long as I can remember has verged on being a religious experience.

It was memories of being in the building to watch a four OT game in the D2 tournament years ago only for it to immediately be followed by a one OT affair.

It was going to the men’s D1 Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight as a high school graduation present and seeing Scottie Reynolds make that dash to beat Pitt at the horn.

So much of my life is marked by college basketball and by March. I enjoy sports, but college basketball is king because it feels like it’s mine. I know that millions enjoy the game, but I feel something in a way that nothing else moves me in the sports world.

And D3 is the small brook down the hidden path in the forest of all sports. It’s only seen if you go looking for it, and once you do you never forget it. This season looked like it would be the first that I hadn’t watched a D3 game since 1997. It hurt.

But then I was welcomed here, to Keene, a city in the southwest corner of New Hampshire surrounded by trees and full of life. And I was grateful to be here because I know many in this time of pandemic don’t get the opportunity.

The City of Keene

This place is a gem. With a population of around 23,000, Keene is the largest city for quite a ways, and the heartbeat of the city is Central Square.

Full of shops, eateries, and everything else a college town needs, Central Square is perfectly New England from the coffee shops to the old mainline Protestant Church as its focal point.

Known simply as The White Church, it rises above the square.

Much of the movie Jumanji with Robin Williams was shot in and around Keene. A short walk from the church is the mural for Parrish’s Shoes, still as vibrant as ever, on the bricks of one of the shops.

The Good Eats

The Stage shares a wall with the White Church and is a quintessential spot for a meal out.

Cozy, warm, and welcoming inside, The Stage is an American bistro that has been a staple in the city for three decades.

I hadn’t eaten much and was ready for a proper meal and I got one of the best I’ve had on my journey through New England.

Called a California wrap & roll, it was a veggie burger wrapped with a dill-infused Havarti, avocado, bean sprouts, and field greens dressed in a carrot ginger sauce. And it came with a tamari peanut sauce.

I got it with a side caesar and fries. It delivered.

In my journey to find the best Caesar salad in New England, The Stage ascended to the top spot. The carrots and lemon were a twist I don’t see often and made the dish. The sandwich was unlike anything I’d ever had, with the carrot ginger glaze tying it all together.

And a sauce that was basically soy sauce and peanut butter? How could that be bad? Add in perfectly crunchy fries and this place truly was excellent.

Oh, and there was a piece of chocolate cake with chocolate whipped cream to put a bow on the meal.

I will absolutely be back.

But the good eats didn’t end there because sharing a wall with The Stage was the Life is Sweet candy shop.

The interior of this place was a pastel bomb.

But they had cupcakes and there was a single cupcake left that had a wafer cookie, nutella, and vanilla frosting left in the case. Luckily, I have a wife that loves wafer cookies, nutella, and all foods vanilla.

It was an early Valentine’s Day treat for a wonderful woman.

The Campus

My god did I miss walking around a campus. The schools in cities like Boston have their own appeal, but walking around a campus has no comparison.

Even in the dark, wrapped against the bitter cold of the New Hampshire winter, the campus was beautiful.

The Mason Library

The first floor of the library is home to the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The center houses the college’s Holocuast and Genocide Studies major, the only one of its kind in the country and acts a resource center for the state, and beyond, and houses 6,000 volumes in its collection.

It became a department at the college in 2012.

The quad
Zorn Dining Commons

However one thing that popped the bubble of enjoying a campus was, of course, the pandemic.

The campus was nearly empty. The college has a population of roughly 3,500 and it was a ghost town. The students were set to return shortly after the game was played, but on that night it was cold, dark, and barren.

Throughout this year I’ve wondered why are we doing this? Being in gyms with cardboard cutouts of athletic department officials, friends, and pets is weird. There’s a baseline energy at a basketball game. The general murmur of people conversing and enjoying the day is the starting point and builds throughout.

But it hasn’t been there this season for obvious reasons. For me it hasn’t mattered until it has. I still find myself getting lost in the flow and rhythm of the game but then you’ll hear the broadcaster make a big call and realize that you shouldn’t be hearing that from the other end of the court.

On the other hand, I know how much college basketball means for my mental health and I can’t imagine how much of a lift its been for the players and coaches around the country. Every person I’ve talked to this season has just been grateful that it gets to happen.

I’m grateful to be a part of it.

The Gym

The Spaulding Recreation Center is both gymnasium and student rec center.

The gym itself is a classic, old box. Even with no crowd it was warm inside despite it being in the 20s outside. I can’t imagine how sweltering it gets when a big opponent comes to town.

One neat quirk that I haven’t seen in any other D3 gym in my travels was the video board. Fully HD, it ran graphics throughout the game.

Another interesting thing was how many different owl logos were spread throughout the building. Sure, the logo on the video screen is the current one but logos long past lived on in wall paintings and on banners.

Pick your favorite.

The Game

The Little East Conference is the lone

D3 league in New England giving it a go this season and started in January with only a handful of teams in the league electing to play.

The LEC is also unique in that the league has D1-style media timeouts four times a half. They aren’t as long as Division 1 but they were still built into the game.

The Owls have a long history of success and a recent history of close games against ECSU. Coming into tonight, eight of the last 11 matchups between the two had been settled by single digits.

On this night it was a sprint of the gates and Eastern led 15-13 at the first media timeout.

But the tide turned quickly. ECSU got the lead up to 19-15 and then the Owls kicked it into overdrive. The Owls held the Warriors scoreless for 7:43 and scored 16 straight.

The Owls kept pouring it on and opened up a 17-point lead at the half and grew it to 26 points two minutes into the second half.

No one was sharper for Keene than Jeff Hunter. The 6’7 sophomore had a huge 23-point, 15-rebound double-double. He wasn’t alone though. Jeric Cichon (14 pts, 10 rbd) and James Anozie (12 pts, 12 rbd) had double-doubles of their own.

And even with all that going right for Keene, the Warriors would not go quietly into the night.

ECSU buckled down in the second half and got the gap down to seven with just over four minutes to play.

Cory Muckle had all 14 of his points in the second half to go with 13 rebounds, and Tyreice Woods had 19 for the Warriors.

But when you are playing a team that has three guys with double-doubles, the night isn’t going to end well.

Keene State 85, Eastern Connecticut State 75. Final
Player of the game: Jeff Hunter (KSC)
Time of game – 1:51

Thanks for having me Keene. I can’t wait to be back.

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.