Athletics

On the Road Again with Ben Kaplan '09 and the Lord Jeffs

In his final season with the Amherst basketball team, Ben Kaplan '09 decided to put his writing skills to good use by keeping a running diary of the Lord Jeffs' 2009 NCAA Tournament experience. Check back each day to see what Kaplan and the Jeffs are up to during their New Jersey road trip.

KaplanThursday, Mar.5
Last April, my fellow members of the Amherst basketball Class of ’09 and I won the lip sync contest, an annual choreography competition with a valuable prize – the first pick in room draw. We successfully made fools of ourselves and won with our skit entitled “Road Trip” with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” recurring as the refrain.

Little did we know that our theme choice for lip sync would also be the theme of our last season of Amherst hoops, perfectly describing the 2008-09 Lord Jeffs. When the schedules were released late last summer, it was clear that the unprecedented seven-game road trip spanning from mid-January to mid-February would define our season.

I can’t help but remember Wilson, the wise neighbor in television's Home Improvement, once telling Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, face half-hidden by the fence, “When we’re home, we dream of great adventure, and when we’re on great adventures, we dream of home.”  There were definitely times during the seven-game trip (which included three games in Maine) that we wished we were back home.

On the fourth game of the trip, we lost to Colby after erasing a double-digit deficit, also losing starter Steve Wheeler to a rolled ankle suffered during a desperation heave at the end of the first half. We then squandered a 19-point lead in the second half of the next game at Rhode Island College, dropping to 3-2 on the trip and jeopardizing our NCAA status.

Our futures remained muddled the rest of the regular season and through the NESCAC Championship, which took our traveling band of basketball players up to Middlebury, Vermont. Every member of our team had had the good fortune of never playing a NESCAC tournament game on the road, so the weekend was a first for all of us, albeit a first that fit perfectly with our season’s theme.

After an emotional win over Williams to take the season series, we lost in the finals against a fired up Middlebury squad and our season hung in the balances. Twenty-one uneasy hours later, we learned we were off of the bubble and into the tournament. In Division I, bubble teams often gather with their teammates to watch the selection show live, cameras monitoring their every move. For us, guys found out this past Monday in a variety of ways – some watched the selection show online, some ducked out of class to “go to the bathroom” and checked the brackets on the nearest computer, and some just waited to hear from a teammate. I figured we had secured a bid when I heard my classmate Glenn Wong running down the halls in our dorm shouting, “WOOOOO!!  Let’s GOOOOOO!!!” We had lived to play another day, and we would be playing at another site. The Road Crew would take to the streets once more.

Getting into the tournament excited everyone. Even though this marks Amherst’s 10th straight NCAA appearance, it never gets old for anyone, especially the first-years who were experiencing D3’s “playing house” version of March Madness for the first time.  Our draw, however, really excited our coaches, who got the opportunity to bother new coaches for clips they would use to scout new teams. The four teams playing at Richard Stockton College in southern New Jersey span four states and four of the eight regions the NCAA uses to break up men’s basketball teams – Stockton from the Atlantic region; their opponent, RPI, from New York and the East region; our matchup, Gwynedd-Mercy, from Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region; and us from the Northeast region. It is, as Coach Hixon said Monday at practice, “Truly a national tournament.”

Another person who our draw excited was Bob, who has been driving our bus since our last Maine trip nearly a month ago. A jovial man who keeps old Three Stooges episodes running on the bus DVD system after wins, Bob told us before our Williams game last Saturday, “You guys better win. I wanna work tomorrow!” Well, Bob, we got you more work, and plenty of time to continue those conversations with our coaching staff at the front of the bus during the five-plus hour drive to Pomona.

After our long bus ride, which guys spent napping, eating, writing papers, reading, watching movies, listening to music, engaging in conversation, or any combination of those activities, we pulled into the Comfort Inn for a quick stop before our 7:45 p.m. practice. During NCAA Tournament practices, visiting teams get 90 minutes of closed-door court time, which we partook in after Friday’s foe, Gwynedd-Mercy, got in its final tune-up. Our practice consisted of the standard warm-up, shooting and scrimmage as we quickly got acclimated with our new surroundings. In order to succeed as the Road Crew, you have to adapt to new settings quickly, and as the shots started falling with more frequency, it was clear that we had gotten used to the deep shooting background at Stockton’s gym.  Hopefully they keep falling for us throughout the weekend.

Our schedule for Friday includes an 11 a.m. brunch, probably at the Denny’s a couple of us enjoyed for dinner (the best part of going to Denny’s with the knowledge you’ll be there the next morning is that it makes the timeless breakfast vs. dinner inner struggle a lot easier to decide). Following brunch, we’ll head to Stockton for a shootaround and a review of the scouting report.

It’s the same old away game routine for the team that has made its home on the road this season—just a group of vagabonds trying to keep the journey going, hoping to take this road as far as it goes.