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‘It’s Definitely Going to Leave a Void’: Chelsea Hosts One Last Night of Basketball

  • Chelsea and Whitchester battle under the basket for a rebound during their game on Feb. 22, 2018 in Chelsea, Vt. It was the last regular season game at the school. The school held a celebration of the event, including displaying old uniforms. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Chelsea girls basketball team ramps up for their last game of the regular season on Feb. 22, 2018, in Chelsea, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Devil mascot Annette Deberville, of Washington, Vt., leads the crowd during a timeout at the Chelsea-Whitchester basketball game in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 22, 2018. Deberville's daughters went to Chelsea and played on the basketball team. She dressed up as the devil mascot for their games. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea players Tucker Chapin, left and McKenna Brinkman struggle for control of the ball with Whitchester's Toni Turner during their game in Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 22, 2018. It was the school's last regular season home game. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea senior Tucker Chapin hugs her coach Gordon Barnaby in the last few seconds of their game with Whitchester on Feb. 22, 2018 in Chelsea, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Phyllis Hayward sits with her daughter Mary Ellen Parkman and two granddaughters Zophia Hayward, 7, and Lacey Parkman, 7, during the last regular season Chelsea boys and girls basketball game on Feb. 22, 2018 in Chelsea, Vt. The girls are cousins-- Lacey is Parkman's daughter. They live in Chelsea. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea player Cole Banks goes up for a layup with Whitchester's Zach Rhoades, left, Daniel Labejsza near him in the last minutes of their game with Whitchester on Feb. 22, 2018, in Chelsea. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Years of Chelsea basketball teams line the hallway of the Chelsea gym on Feb. 22, 2018 in Chelsea, Vt. The town celebrated the last regular season home games played at the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Chelsea girls basketball team and students cheer on the boys team during their game with Whitchester on Feb. 22, 2018. Both the Chelsea boys and girls won their games. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chelsea Athletic Director Parrish Eiskamp takes down a poster of senior basketball player Emily Saunders while she and her mother Virginia Fifield wait to take it home. Both Chelsea boys and girls teams won their game with Whitchester at Chelsea, Vt., on Feb. 22, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2018

Chelsea — It was gray and damp outside when the Chelsea High boys and girls basketball teams played their final regular-season home games on Thursday. The inside teemed with red energy.

A banner strung across the wall above the bleachers read “Feel the Heat,” in reference to Chelsea’s Red Devils nickname, and it was impossible not to. As anyone who’s played, coached or watched high school basketball games in old-time gymnasiums can attest, it gets hot when they’re packed with an overflow crowd.

Indeed, Chelsea’s old barn was to the brim for this girls-boys doubleheader against Central Vermont League rival Whitcomb-Rochester.

Neither program will exist next season, in part because of Act 46, the Vermont state law requiring small school districts to either merge with neighbors voluntarily or eventually be mandated to do so. After votes and petitioned re-votes in both Tunbridge and Chelsea, those towns are merging to become the First Branch Unified School District, closing Chelsea High in favor of school choice for high school students while the towns consider a combined middle school.

Meanwhile, Bethel, home of Whitcomb High, is merging with neighboring Royalton to become the White River Valley Unified School District, while Rochester is also closing its high school in favor of school choice and merging with Stockbridge.

Everything will be different next season, but on Thursday the teams — and Chelsea’s fans — celebrated one last matchup in Chelsea’s venerable, standalone gym, which actually looks like a barn from the outside and has been hosting games since the 1930s.

In the hallway leading to the floor, team photos from throughout the years were tacked to the wall. Grainy photos of kids whose toothy smiles suggest an affinity not only with the game but with the activity and the relationships it provided.

Equipped with a large plastic pitchfork, Annette Deberville has painted her face red and dusted off her Devils costume, playing the team’s mascot and leading cheers for the first time in 15 years. Like so many others in the crowd, Deberville’s children once played here.

Many of the adults in the crowd also once played for Chelsea. When 1992 graduate Emily Marshia uses a microphone during a pregame ceremony to acknowledge everyone who’s ever played, the bleachers rise and cheer in virtual unison.

Many have been coming back to games as spectators since the time they graduated. After all, home basketball games in Chelsea have long been integrated into the community fabric not only as sport, but as a source of wintertime entertainment and revelry.

“They’re not just games; they’re events,” said Marcey (Metcalf) Hannon, who’s organizing an alumni game to take place March 31. “They keep community ties together. If people move out of town, they come back here and see everyone on Christmas break. With no ball games, now where are they going to see everyone?

“Plus, the kids are learning skills for life with the same kids they grew up with. Now if they play, it will be at some other school.”

Added Mary Ellen (Hayward) Parkman, a 1993 graduate and 1,000-point scorer who went on to play at Clarkson University: “The support in this community has always been here for these kids. It’s definitely going to leave a void when it closes.”

The Chelsea boys team’s first and only state championship came in 1941, but some would argue the program’s true heyday was in the mid-1970s. Led my affable forward Arnie Braman, the Red Devils put together a 19-game winning streak at one point and reached the semifinals or finals three straight seasons from 1974-76, all the while employing an exciting run-and-gun style that had become vogue during the era.

“This town missed the railroad, and we missed the interstate, but we didn’t miss basketball,” Braman said on Thursday. “John Bagonzi was playing the press-and-run to no end in Woodsville, and they played Blue Mountain (in nonleague games). Well, BMU brought that style (to the Central Vermont League), and we played every game that way for years, constantly looking to pass or shoot. We used to say dribbling could only do one thing, and that’s get you in trouble. The only time you dribbled is if you didn’t have any other options.”

Chelsea’s girls team had a bona fide dynasty in the 1980s, winning five VPA Division IV championships in six years under coaches Merle Fitzgerald, Paul “Doc” Donohue and Mike McCullough. The one season the Red Devils didn’t win it all during that span may have featured their most memorable game, a semifinal win over archrival South Royalton at Barre Auditorium in 1985.

Down 40-39 in the waning seconds, Chelsea center Kathy Keene — the niece of the Royals coach at the time, Jim Ballou — launched a shot at the buzzer that then-Valley News correspondent Buster Olney described as coming “from a nearly impossible angle behind the backboard.” Yet ...

“Somehow, the ball found the net,” Olney wrote, for a 41-40 Chelsea win.

That showdown was 33 years ago to the day from Thursday’s final home game, which happens to be the birthday of the point guard for that Red Devils team, Kelly (Colby) Gray.

“I turned 16 that day, so you can imagine how awesome that was,” Gray said on Thursday. “Beating South Royalton, for us, was like winning the state title.”

The Red Devils lost to Stowe in the ’85 final but got revenge with a 27-25 win over the Raiders in the 1986 championship game under McCullough, who later coached the boys for 12 seasons.

“I’m sure that was the lowest-scoring game I ever played in,” said Gray. “Mike’s feeling was, ‘They can’t shoot it if they don’t have it,’ so that was our strategy, to keep the ball out of their hands.”

Chelsea’s girls team went on to win another D-IV crown in 2005 under coach Russell Wilcox, now the girls coach at Woodsville.

Gray’s niece, Emma Colby, scored 14 points and Kiana Johnson had 15 as the Chelsea girls beat Whitchester in the girls game on Thursday, 35-27. Trailing by a basket at halftime, Chelsea outscored the Mountaineers, 17-9, in the third quarter to take control.

Johnson, a junior, has aspirations to continue playing in college. She’ll likely attend Thetford Academy for her senior year and suit up for the Panthers, but Thursday night was all about her hometown.

“It’s heartbreaking that it’s our last season here, but I’m glad so many people from the community are a part of it,” Johnson said. “We definitely fed off the crowd tonight.”

The loudest roars came during a dramatic finish to the boys game. Chelsea led for much of the first half before Whitchester rallied, but the Red Devils got back in front on a 3-pointer by senior Shawn King. Ronald Johnson, a burly junior forward who isn’t certain what school he’ll attend next year, got the crowd even more into it by raising his arms and yelling, “Let’s go!” as he charged back on defense following King’s make.

Soon, a “We love Chelsea!” chant emanated.

Mountaineers senior Colby Washburn did his best to play spoiler, sinking a 3 to put Whitchester ahead, and the teams traded baskets again before a Chelsea timeout with 2:20 to play.

During the break, Deberville, in the devil costume, marched up and down the floor in front of the bleachers to lead a call-and-response spelling of C-H-E-L-S-E-A for the first time in 15 years, and possibly for the last.

Back on the floor, someone who will never attend Chelsea as a high school student, eighth-grader Cole Blake, executed back-to-back steals and fast-break layups to nearly set the place on fire with noise. The Red Devils led, 47-45, and put the game away with a layup by Johnson with 30 seconds left followed by a pair of free throws from Jake Colby with 5 seconds remaining.

Chelsea had won its final home game, 51-46, and no one wanted to leave.

When the cheers finally faded, a pall of melancholy lingered. The finality was seeping in.

“This was a very special night, but it’s really sad,” said Mary Johnson, a former Chelsea player and cheerleader. “I used to play in the girls game and then cheer for the boys game.

“Tonight, in here, it felt like that old spirit.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

 Correction

Ronald Johnson is a junior on the Chelsea High School boys bask etball team. Johnson was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.