One for the Scrapbooks: End of South Royalton-Whitcomb Rivalry Evokes Nostalgia, Emotion

  • The defending champion Whitcomb boys basketball team celebrates their 51-50 semifinal win over South Royalton in Barre, Vt., on March 11, 1981. (Valley News - Gil Williamson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Whitcomb-Rochester fans watch the girls basketball team play South Royalton in a playoff game held in Woodstock, Vt., on Feb. 23, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • South Royalton's Bailey Wing, right fouls Whitcomb-Rochester's Lindsey LaPerle during their playoff game in Woodstock, Vt., on Feb. 23, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • South Royalton's Stephen Paige, left, scores after breaking away from Whitcomb's Taylor Washburn, right, at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, Vt., Thursday, January 5, 2017. South Royalton won 69 - 33. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, December 02, 2017

The recently formed White River Unified School District, which takes effect next July, represents a new beginning for education in the towns of Royalton and Bethel, one that supporters hope will ultimately lead to enhanced programs and opportunities for students.

A byproduct of the measure — which will send middle school students from both towns to the current Whitcomb Junior-Senior High School building and high school students from both to South Royalton — is the loss of a celebrated Central Vermont League sports rivalry that was particularly intense on the basketball court.

The eight-mile distance between the rival schools helped draw overflow crowds to tiny gymnasiums. Community pride was on full display, the buzz raucous in an atmosphere spilling into the hearts of personnel on both sides.

“I saw players doing things at warmups of those games that I never saw them do at practice,” said Jeff Moreno, who had stints coaching both the girls and boys programs at South Royalton in the late 1990s and 2000s. “Then during the game, it was a lot of back-and-forth the whole time. Both teams came to play in a big way.”

Moreno, who went on to become athletic director at South Royalton and is now the assistant principal and athletic director at his alma matter, Hartford High, underestimated the fierceness of the rivalry when he first took over the girls program in 1998.

“My girls warned me what to expect. I was thinking, ‘Just another CVL game,’ like against Twinfield or Blue Mountain, and they said, ‘No, coach, this is Whitcomb,’ ” Moreno recalled.

“When I got there for the game, the parking lot was already full because everyone knew that if you wanted a good seat, you had to get there by halftime of the JV game. So I park out on the street and I can already hear the crowd coming from the JV game. I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be special,’ and it was. It always was. ”

The intensity lived even as Moreno faced one of his best friends, Jamie Kinnarney, during Kinnarney’s only season with Whitcomb in 2007-08. Kinnarney later became the Royals’ boys coach and today is principal at Williamstown Elementary School.

“We were hanging out all the time, scouting together, everything,” Moreno said. “He gets the Whitcomb job, and when it comes to game night, he’s not talking to me. We were beating them pretty good, and he starts yelling at me from his bench, like we’re not even friends, saying to take the press off. After the game, he came over and we laughed about it, but that’s what the rivalry would do.”

Jeff Mills couldn’t specifically recall which opponent his Whitcomb High team defeated in the 1981 VPA Division IV championship game — it was Danville; Richford had been the foe in the previous year’s final — but he can still vividly recollect the final sequence of its ’81 semifinal win over South Royalton.

Mills and senior classmate Tony Lamberton were both 1,000-point scorers, but they were 0-9 against the Royals until a 51-50 win at Barre Auditorium that March night. With Royals coach Gary Fifield naturally keying on Mills and Lamberton, 5-foot-9 Whitcomb bench player Bernie Klatte contributed a season-high 16 points.

South Royalton still led 50-46 with 1:26 remaining but missed the front end of consecutive one-and-one free throw opportunities, and Mills drove for a layup to get the Hornets within a basket with 37 seconds left.

Whitcomb coach Murray Banks triggered a full-court press, forcing a South Royalton traveling violation to give the ball back to the Hornets.

“That surprised them, because we hadn’t pressured them all year long,” Mills said in a recent phone interview. “I can’t remember who got called for traveling, but our pressure made him take an extra step.”

Mills subsequently hit the rim during both makes of a three-point-play: the jumper that drew a foul and sat on the iron for an instant before dropping through to tie it, then the free throw that glanced off the front and in to make it 51-50 with 10 seconds to play.

South Royalton missed a last-chance drive to the hoop to give Whitcomb’s seniors their first-ever hoops win over the Royals.

Pete Howe, a senior for South Royalton that night and the Royals’ current boys coach, remains stunned by the performance of Klatte, the only Hornet besides Mills and Lamberton to score.

“He might have been (5-foot-9), but he was 6-4 that night,” Howe recalled in a phone interview. “He kept hitting these impossible hook shots. I still can’t believe it.”

Mills and Howe remain close friends and continue to rib one another about their days as opponents in multiple sports.

“My grandmother recorded the radio broadcast of that game by placing a cassette recorder next to the speaker, and I still have the tape,” Mills said.

“Most times when I see Pete, I tell him we can listen to it if he wants. He usually responds by saying we could also listen to the broadcast of the baseball championship game from our junior year, because they’d beaten us in that.”

The schools’ hoops rivalries have been one-sided recently. South Royalton has won 25 straight in the boys series since 2002, and Whitcomb or Whitcomb-Rochester — the Hornets’ and Rockets’ girls programs formed a cooperative and have been known as the Whitchester Mountaineers since 2014 — has captured nine of the last 11 meetings against the Royals. The boys also will be known as Whitchester this year under former Rochester coach Earl Kingsbury.

While some players admit it will be strange next year to suit up as teammates with players in South Royalton, others wish the merger happened sooner.

Whitcomb senior Colby Washburn said he would have relished playing with a larger roster. The Hornets, who had a different coach during each of the last three seasons, have struggled with low numbers, taxing player durability and exacerbating injury and attrition issues.

“Since I was a freshman, I’ve always known I was going to make the team and see a lot of playing time, just because of the numbers we’ve had,” said Washburn, whose squad finished 8-13 a year ago and lost to the Royals in the first round of the VPA Division IV state tournament. “It would have been fun to have to compete for a spot and had a more competitive team.”

Many are hopeful athletics will be one of many areas of improvement as a result of the merger, talk of which in Royalton and Bethel long predates Act 46. That’s the state’s 2015 education reform law promoting small, neighboring school districts to consider merging or possibly face forced consolidation. (Whitchester’s other half, Rochester, is dissolving its high school as part of an Act 46 vote.)

Kinnarney, the Williamstown principal and former coach at both South Royalton and Whitcomb, remains a South Royalton resident and feels the merger is past due.

“The learning opportunities are going to be greater once they consolidate their resources,” Kinnarney said. “Once you get over having a different mascot and different colors, the course offerings the kids will have will outweigh any negatives in athletics. As an educator, you can’t ignore that.”

South Royalton AD Frank Romeo thinks the benefits will extend to the athletic programs.

“You might say it’s too bad that the rivalry goes away, but you’re also looking at more athletes and, potentially, more teams,” Romeo said. “Theoretically, there will be more kids at each age level, so you won’t have as many young players needing to play varsity before they’re prepared to make that step.”

One certainty is that teams on both sides will be amped for their final showdowns this season. When told of the South Royalton boys’ 25-game winning streak in the series, first-year Whitcomb player Eddie Bray said, “That’s got to change.”

Royals junior Kylie Hebard is similarly interested in ending her team’s jinx against the Mountaineers before joining forces with Whitcomb next season.

“There’s definitely some extra motivation,” she said. “Especially knowing we’ll be the same team next year, you want to give it all you’ve got.”

South Royalton’s girls visit Whitchester in Bethel on Jan. 16 before both the Mountaineers’ boys and girls teams play at South Royalton in the school’s annual cancer awareness gala on Jan. 27. That’ll double as the first of a home-and-home in the boys series, culminating four days later in the teams’ final matchup at Whitcomb.

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