February 10, 2021 – Keene, New Hampshire
Keene State vs Eastern Connecticut State
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.
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 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.
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 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 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.