THP #42: Rolling Along

February 26, 2023 – Worcester, Massachusetts
Worcester State vs Westfield State
MASCAC Championship Game
Men’s Basketball

My daughter Claire was born three days before the end of 2022. My wife Christina delivered via C-section after a stressful induction. All are well. All are healthy. I’m a dad now. I would say I need an adult, but I’m the adult and that’s just something I need to step into.

Fatherhood is excellent. There really is nothing as calming as holding my daughter and having her fall asleep on my chest. I could do without her grabbing my chest hair like a vise, but I won’t hold it against her.

My wife says she feels like her heart is busting out of her with love. When she gives Claire a kiss she gets a massive endorphin rush. I love seeing her smile wholly and completely when she’s holding her.

My feeling is different. Instead of bursting open with love I feel a serenity I’ve never felt before. My body relaxes, my racing mind finally slows, and I feel a calm like nothing else when I hold her. The feeling is a gift Claire gives me everyday.

My way to be the best dad I can be comes back to maintaining my own identity. Becoming a parent doesn’t mean I end the life I had before or pause it for two decades: it means incorporating my daughter into it.

That’s taking her to basketball games. Taking her on walks on balmy spring days. Teaching her to juggle and cook and the difference between different types of sea life. The things I love I can’t wait to share with her, and I can’t wait for her to share things with me.

I never thought I’d be a father when I was growing up. Now I can’t imagine not being one.

Claire is a delight and a wonderful addition to my life. And we still have time to have a moment with Bella.

The Good Eats

My friend Clayton stayed the night before the game and before heading out us, Christina, and Claire had breakfast at the charmingly named Dinky’s Blue Belle Diner, an old lunch car cafe in Shrewsbury.

There had been a sizable expansion though, and we didn’t even sit in the lunch car section.

Clayton bombing the exterior photo

Outside there was a vintage Coca Cola dispenser? Machine? Cooler? I’m not sure what exactly, but Clayton modeled it beautifully.

Inside there was a bar section that wasn’t open. Can’t say I’m feeling “bar” when I go to the diner though.

And right on the other side of the entryway was the original lunch car, and it looked the part.

However the real centerpiece was this comically large guitar hanging from the ceiling. The photo doesn’t do justice to how big and extra that thing was. I’m maybe standing a yard away from it and it’s even bigger than it looks.

That isn’t forced perspective, the guitar absolutely dwarfs the size of the plane.

The main bulk of the restaurant was what you’d expect from a diner of this type. Cozy tables with lots of quirky Americana spread out on the walls.

The menu is a lot. Not only in the “it’s a diner so of course it has options” way but in a literal sense too. Dinky’s has one of the most visually busy menus I’ve ever seen.

I went with the two eggs with meat, home fries, and toast, and then I added the short stack of silver dollar chocolate chip pancakes.

The left plate was excellent.  The eggs were how I like them, the home fries were the type of crispy I like, and sausage patties are the superior breakfast meet. More diners need to have Italian bread in their toast rotation. It’s in the starting five for sandwich breads and it’s just as good as toast.

The pancakes though, were a miss. The chocolate chips were only on the  surface and the surface cracked like a cracker. A bit too overcooked for me but still a good overall meal.

My wife went for Stephanie’s Panwich, which is a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich on pancakes. She separated it and ate it separately but it certainly was a unique sandwich.

On the way out I stopped at the bathroom and this sign was above the toilet. I have no words, but the sign sure does.

Worcester State

Located in west-central Worcester near the airport, Worcester State is the largest four-year college in the city with 5500 undergrads. It was founded in 1874 as the Massachusetts State Normal School at Worcester. It evolved into State Teachers College in 1932 and Worcester State College in 1960.

The main campus got its first dormitory complex in 1973, and it became a university, along with all the other small state colleges, in 2010. WSU absorbed the records of nearby Becker College when it closed in 2021.

The campus has a charm to it with all the brick buildings. The newer buildings are heavy on windows and natural light.

Administration building.
Student center
Ghosh Science Center

The Venue

Opened in 2016, the Wellness Center has been the home of Lancer athletics ever since.

Sleek and contemporary, the building shares a parking lot with the other athletic fields on campus.

Coughlin Field

There’s offices, classrooms, a large fitness center, and even a golf training room inside. I was first here last spring with my wife and some friends for a veggie food festival and the building was transformed into an exhibition hall with dozens of vendors.

There’s even a small concession stand built into the wall opposite the gym. It sells standard concessions fare.

The main competition arena sits around 1,500 people with seats on all four sides and a running track overlooking the floor. And it was packed for this one with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.

The Game

For the third straight season it was Westfield State and Worcester State matching up for the league title. Both of the previous games were Westfield wins out in Western Mass.

This season had been different for the Lancers though. They tore through the MASCAC undefeated, with two wins by 20+ points over Westfield, to cruise into the final with a shot at their first NCAA tournament bid in 29 years.

It took a while for the game to get going. Both teams traded the lead a lot early but had trouble consistently scoring. A little over midway through the first half, everyone started to settle in.

The Lancers were getting the better of it but the Owls, anchored by senior JT Thompson and former MASCAC Player of the Year Brendon Hamilton, played like the reigning two-time champs. Both were named to this year’s MASCAC All-Conference First Team.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t nerves out on the court.

The majority of the half was played in a five-point window, but Worcester, and more specifically Zion Hendrix, blew it open before the intermission.

The Lancers went into the half up 11 and the crowd was hot.

Quick break to highlight two things. First, a group of guys from Worcester State played the role of the free throw brigade, trying to trip up Owls at the stripe. They got high marks for creativity.

Not-so-high marks for Westfield’s Brendan Keaveny, who fell for the classic fake shot clock countdown. The Lancers students caught him with a 3…..2…..1 even though they was five or more seconds on the shot clock.

Keaveny fell for this four times throughout the game.

Even with starting center Ryan Rubenskas battling foul trouble throughout the game, the Lancers played with control….except JT Thompson wasn’t about to roll over.

Thompson single-handedly kept the Owls in the game with a monster 20-point second half.

A Worcester lead that had ballooned to 17 shrank. 15. 12. 10. 7. And the gym started to get stressed.

Only problem was that the Lancers had multiple answers, including MASCAC Player of the Year Aaron Nkrumah.

He finished with 16 points and filled the sheet with eight boards, three assists, and two steals.

But there was Thompson. Even when he was missing he was making things happen. He drew three three-shot fouls throughout the game.

The Lancers kept pushing the lead into double figures and Thompson refused to let them close the show. He poured in shots from around the court to keep the Owls in it.

Westfield needed his play because the Lancers effectively neutralized Hamilton, holding him to four points on eight shots and five rebounds. Other than Thompson, no Westfield player had more than nine points.

Worcester had three players in double figures (Hendrix had 16 and Sam Dion had 11) and dominated the glass 57-36. Erik Bjorn played all 40 minutes and pulled down a video game-like 24 rebounds for the Lancers.

All that together was enough to pull it out and finish the game off in the final minutes.

Worcester State 65, Westfield State 53. Final.
Player of the Game: JT Thompson (Westfield State) – 29 points
Time of Game: 1:33:07

Worcester State would lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament the following week to Middlebury 76-51.

Being at this game brought back a lot of great memories. I grew up in the MASCAC. Around the turn of the century I was a regular at Salem State games with my father back when they were a national player. Salem dominated the league and Worcester didn’t even qualify as an afterthought. The Lancers were brutal every year.

So to see Worcester run the table on the conference and win the league was a treat, especially now that I call the city home.

I also loved being back in a big MASCAC crowd. The league is all small state universities. These schools aren’t nationally ranked but provide an excellent education for people looking to take that next step in their future. And there’s a chip on the shoulder of the players and it carries over into the crowds. There’s an energy, a desire to puff the chest, that bleeds into everything. It’s inspiring to be a part of and makes for a hot crowd at big games like these.

Thanks for reading. In honor of spring break, here’s one for the road.

THP #40: Nuclear Basketball

December 6, 2022 – New London, Connecticut
Mitchell vs Westfield State
Women’s Basketball

What happens when a conference dies? Where does everything go? Why does it fade away into the ether? Well, that very thing will happen in New England this summer when the New England Collegiate Conference ceases to exist.

And I mean fully disappear. No, this isn’t the Big 8 becoming the Big 12 or Atlantic-10 football “disappearing” but really just rebranding as the CAA. This is like the Southwest Conference: a whole conference competing this year and then simply not the next.

Mitchell, a private school with just 508 students, is my final stop in the NECC. There were only three others. Mitchell is lucky and already has a home locked down for the future: The Great Northeast Athletic Conference.

The Red Barn, an event space on the Mitchell campus.

“It’s been up and down. We’ve tried to not really think about it in terms of our team,” Mitchell women’s basketball coach Courtney Burns said. “Our administration worked really hard to get us in a position to get into the GNAC, and we trusted that they would.”

The GNAC is a perfect fit but hold up Mike: four schools? In a whole league?

Yeah. That’s been the NECC’s existence for the last several years. I’ve been to them all.

That’s it. Burns has seen the league fall apart since taking over in New London back in 2017. That year the Mariners opened the conference slate against Lesley. After that, three of their next five conference opponents no longer exist (Newbury, Southern Vermont, Wheelock) and one stopped sponsoring basketball (Bay Path).

Keep going down the schedule and there’s Becker College, which closed after the 21-22 school year, and there’s Elms & Dean, which are both now in the GNAC. Even before Burns got there, Daniel Webster College shuttered unexpectedly in 2017.

“We had, unfortunately, some of those smaller New England schools that closed down,” Burns said. “You don’t want to worry about having to add another team or be on a probation period this year. You want something that’s stable. You shouldn’t have to worry about your conference closing and competing for an NCAA bid. That should be something you shouldn’t have to worry about as a coach.”

The league had maintained its auto-bid for a probationary period but now that’s up, and the schools needed to find new homes. Mitchell and New England College will join the GNAC together next year.

It’s a great fit, in my opinion. The GNAC is a large conference that will have 15 schools next year, and it’s full of similar colleges to Mitchell and NEC. It’s a league of small, private schools across New England. It’s one of two conferences that have schools in all six New England states.

Some of the dorms at Mitchell.

“Getting into the GNAC helps with recruiting. It’s a more competitive conference,” Burns said. “I think it’ll help, when we win championships, to get a better seed in the NCAA tournament. I think it’s a great move for our program. I think it’s a great move for our school. It gives us, as coaches here at Mitchell, peace of mind because we have a conference and we’ll be able to compete for championships.”

As for the rest of the NECC, it’s not settled. Lesley has found a home in the North Atlantic Conference, which is a league of teams in the North Country of New York and Northern Maine. It’s not a great fit for a small school located basically across the street from Harvard.

And Eastern Nazarene? They don’t have a home yet. And looking at the landscape of New England, if the GNAC doesn’t extend an invite to go to a full 16, I don’t know where they land.

Watching the NECC wither has been sad to watch. Hopefully, ENC finds a place to call home in the future. For now, though, the ball goes on and the games get played.

And before we hit Southeast Connecticut, enjoy a moment with Bella.

Lyman Allyn Art Museum

New London is a lovely city. With a population of just under 28,000, the city has a long, illustrious history with the sea. A former whaling port, New London today is on the rebound after losing much of its manufacturing might in the last century.

On historically Pequot land, New London sits on Long Island Sound and is just a 20-minute drive from the Rhode Island border.

There will be two more stops in the city in the future, and it had been a minute since I’d been to a good art museum so I started the day at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Sitting in the shadow of Connecticut College, the museum looked great even against the backdrop of a miserable gray day.

The museum passes the first test for me: making art accessible. I despise how art is framed as this pastime for the rich and elite. With admission ranging from $5-$12 anyone can have an afternoon at the Allyn so if you’re in the area make the time to check this place out.

Established in 1926, the Allyn features a variety of works with many centered around Connecticut and New England artists.

History of the Museum

One of the first exhibits was one dedicated to artists from the Nutmeg State. While there were many portraits of colonial folk in petticoats and tunics, which you can miss me with, the more modern works of art were excellent. Any museum that has works from the Hudson River School artists gets a big thumbs up from me. And they had blog favorite, Winslow Homer, on display.

Shepherdess by friend of the show Winslow Homer. Painted on a ceramic tile.
Abigail Dolbeare Hinman by Daniel Huntington

This painting has a hell of a story as it tells the tale of Abigail Hinman during the burning of New London in 1781. That’s her staring down Benedict Arnold. I’ll let the museum description tell the rest.

There was the good weird too with the surrealist “The Jugglers Dream of The Trio Begins and Ends” by George Marinko taking up a good chunk of my time. Just so bright and saturated, there are so many ways to take in this work

I really liked Circling Back by Pamela Zagarenski. Such a fun, thoughtful work.

There was a whole exhibition dedicated to Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles Lewis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. fame, and his, and his studio’s work, in stained glass.

This pair of lamps showed the intricate detail and crafting that went into the pieces released by Tiffany and his studio. The 12 Lily Lamp on the left featured blown glass flower blossoms and a bronze construction. The original piece won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, Italy in 1902

The Dragonfly Table Lamp, which I love, was designed by Clara Driscoll and won a bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Driscoll worked with Tiffany Studios on and off for two decades, and this lamp became one of the company’s best-selling forms.

What I loved most about the Lyman Allyn was how it didn’t overwhelm. Some of the bigger museums in the region, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are just so gigantic that it can be sensory overload to go and try and see as much as you can.

You can lazily see everything in the Allyn at your own pace and be in and out in around 90 minutes. I love that. A great way to spend an hour or two in the afternoon. I can’t recommend this museum more highly.

The Good Eats

As darkness descended and game time approached I needed to find something to eat. I needed to recover.

Luckily, on Ocean Avenue, there was The Recovery Room.

A family-style Italian restaurant with a bar, it was warm and familiar.

Known for its pizza I took them up on it and ordered a BBQ chicken pizza. And folks…it may have been the best single pizza I’ve ever had in my life.

Just look at this wonderful, edible journey.

What. A. Pie. This may have been the best pizza I’ve ever had. Yes, I said htat in back-to-back sentences because it was warranted.

What did it was the chicken. It was simply cooked chicken and not breaded and fried. That kept the whole meal lighter and brighter than if it had been fried. Sure, it wasn’t as crunchy, but it was so so good.

Eat here.

The Game

Burns has done a phenomenal job in building the Mariner program. Small enrollment be damned, she’s put together a team that features players from all around the region and even far-flung locales like Seattle and El Paso.

“Last couple of years we’ve really kind of branched out. We tried to cast a really wide net to make us competitive,” Burns said. “Six years ago we cast out that net and had a lot of success in New York that was a start in the change in culture. I think being able to get kids from Texas and Seattle and Maryland allows us to compete in the Northeast where there are some really good basketball programs.”

Burns’ club calls the Yarnall Athletics Center home.

It’s, well, it’s fine. It’s what you’d expect from a small D3.

Trophy case
Banners of past success

One thing that gets a big thumbs up from me was the vending machine downstairs. Yes, there was a small concession table at the gym selling popcorn, candy, and the standard drinks, but I rolled the dice with the machines in the lobby.

And…I got….an AHA seltzer AND peanut butter M&Ms, the best of all the M&Ms. Hell yeah.

Hell yeah.

The gym itself was small and creaked with decades of use. I love rooms like this.

I love gyms that still have these old scoreboards. They’re becoming more and more rare so any time I see one I feel good. Not everything needs to be an LED HD board.

Now this game was radioactive. This was a form of basketball rarely seen, and to interact with it you should wear personal protective equipment lest the glowing shrapnel sticks to your skin.

The ball was tossed in the air, and it was immediately clear that Westfield State was here to break what we think of as modern basketball and turn it into a bubbling geyser of glowing, radiating, radical rock. Don’t believe me? Take a look.

The Owls had one speed: manic. Get back in the halfcourt after your opponent gets a defensive rebound? Nope. Run an offensive set? Nope. Pure, refined mania.

However, even with the mania, the Owls were down 18-10 after a quarter thanks to sharp shooting by the Mariners in their halfcourt offense.

For the vast majority of the game, until deep in the fourth quarter, Westfield would do full five on, five off line changes every 90-150 seconds of game time. This led to 11 Owls playing at least 11 minutes.

When the Mariners were able to breathe and run their offense they were incredibly effective. Yasmine Santos effortlessly cuts to the bucket for two here in the second to open the gap back to seven.

Santos would finish with 21 points on 8-10 shooting and 11 boards.

The Mariners kept giving it to the Owls and not letting the pulsating defense affect them. Amina Wiley goes in here for a strong layup and deserves a spotlight.

Wiley is a program-changing player for the Mariners. The New Rochelle, NY native is the first player in program history to snag 1,000 rebounds and will graduate as the school’s leading female scorer and has a good chance of breaking the men’s record too.

She was NECC rookie of the year in 2019, NECC player of the year last year, and simply does it all for the red & black.

“She just continues to grow every year. She’s a dominant presence inside,” Burns said. “There aren’t many players with her skillset and her size at our level. There’s not a lot of players that can defend her. Even when she’s not scoring she draws so much attention which opens things up for other players. She’s that complete player for us.”

Even with Wiley as a force, Westfield continued to chip away at the lead by the Mariners kept finding answers.

But again, the Owls reached into their bag of suffocating tricks to manufacture points. This time Morgan Berthiaume finishes with a textbook layup.

The chaos wasn’t enough though for the Owls as Mitchell went into the halftime break up five.

The third opened with a bang as the Owls cut the gap to a single possession but Mitchell found answers. Olivia Hadla had a three for Westfield here, part of her game-high 24 points.

I was in awe of the Owls. They kept coming and coming at a breakneck pace. It was a pace I thought they couldn’t maintain but they kept coming in waves.

And late in the third they took the lead. I didn’t even realize it but suddenly they poked a steal and finished the bunny, and the Owls were up six.

But the strength of the Owls defensively was their weakness offensively. There was little rhyme or reason when they had the ball and the Mariners were able to exploit that.

First, it was Santos. Then it was Sam McKenna.

Mitchell had a chance to tie or take the lead heading into the fourth. The ball found McKenna.

McKenna finished with a team-high 23 points.

See those people in the bottom corner jumping for joy? Those are Burns’ parents. You love to see family support.

There was still 10 minutes to play and the Mariners held the slimmest of margins. But they were able to extend the lead. Jermia Dumas finishes a putback to open the gap to four.

The Owls had their one gear and kept up the pressure. Eventually, Hadla would be left open for a corner three and tie it.

Back-to-back layups by Hadla would give Westfield a three-point lead with 90 seconds to go. Who do you call here? Amina Wiley.

She missed the free throw to keep it a one-point Westfield lead. All the Mariners had to do was get a stop.

But Olivia Hadla…

Westfield State 86, Mitchell 82. Final
Player of the Game – Amina Wiley (MC) – 21 points, 22 rebounds, 4 blocks
Time of Game – 1:55:28

What a crazy ballgame. Getting into the numbers shows how weird it truly was.

You just don’t see teams lose when they outshoot opponents 56.1%-38.8%. You don’t see teams lose when they outrebound opponents 51-24. Westfield State made one more field goal than Mitchell (33-32) despite having 28 more attempts (85-57).

What was the difference? It was that nuclear defense. Mitchell turned the ball over 48 times. That’s 1.2 turnovers a minute. It was absolutely bonkers but it worked. The 48 wasn’t even a season high for Westfield. The Owls turned Mount Holyoke over 50 times in November.

That’s the beauty of college basketball. Under the cold, damp New England sky there could be basketball so peerless as to take your breath away.

Thanks for reading. Here’s one for the road.