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Lebanon High Athletes Go on Roundball Road Trip

  • Lebanon High's K.J. Matte, center, dribbles upcourt against Portsmouth in a semifinal game in Exeter, N.H., on March 14, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)

    Lebanon High's K.J. Matte, center, dribbles upcourt against Portsmouth in a semifinal game in Exeter, N.H., on March 14, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lebanon High's Austin Whaley drives down the key past Kingswood's Michael Garabedian (2) during the Raiders' boys basketball win at Lang Metcalf Gym on Monday afternoon.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Lebanon High's Austin Whaley drives down the key past Kingswood's Michael Garabedian (2) during the Raiders' boys basketball win at Lang Metcalf Gym on Monday afternoon. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lebanon High's K.J. Matte, center, dribbles upcourt against Portsmouth in a semifinal game in Exeter, N.H., on March 14, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
  • Lebanon High's Austin Whaley drives down the key past Kingswood's Michael Garabedian (2) during the Raiders' boys basketball win at Lang Metcalf Gym on Monday afternoon.  Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Lebanon — K.J. Matte and Austin Whaley will head back to Lebanon High School in a few weeks. Perhaps a teacher will assign them a what-I-did-for-summer essay. And both could use four words to sum up their collective highlight: “Went on road trip.”

That would be making a long story short. A three-week-long story, in fact.

Whaley, a junior, and Matte, the sophomore son of Lebanon boys basketball coach Kieth Matte, both hope to play college hoops someday. They got a taste of what that life might entail when their Manchester-based AAU team, the DC Blue Devils, did three weeks on the road in July and August for three tournaments, capped by the AAU nationals in Louisville, Ky.

The Blue Devils, coached by former George Washington guard and current European professional T.J. Thompson, finished their summer season by placing ninth out of 53 teams at nationals. Both Matte and Whaley found the experience informative, and not simply from the basketball angle.

“Austin and I were excited to go on the trip and play some really good competition all over the East Coast, really,” Matte said this week. “That was great, getting to play that competition, but being away for three weeks can be tough sometimes.

“You’re missing that chunk of summer, where you don’t have to worry about anything but nationals. It’s a live period, so college coaches can watch. That’s a lot of pressure.”

The trip wrapped up a long summer on the court for the Raider teammates, who started their AAU seasons shortly after Lebanon’s NHIAA campaign ended. The nationals bid — secured by winning a state AAU title in May — simply added a little more time to the schedule.

The U16 Blue Devils enjoyed the typical summer basketball slate, hitting tournaments all over the Northeast in April, May and June. The long trip started with back-to-back events near Philadelphia; qualifying for Kentucky guaranteed the team would be spending a lot of time together both on and off the court.

“It’s been a great experience to have, and I’m very lucky to have this experience,” Whaley said. “Coach Thompson is doing great things, really making sure he’s having a positive impact on a bunch of kids’ lives. I’m happy I met him.”

The Blue Devils evolved out of a Manchester program called Bishop Elite, for whom Matte played two years ago; Whaley earned a roster spot with the Blue Devils for the first time last summer. The DC belongs to DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings swingman and a Thompson acquaintance who sponsors both the Manchester club and one in Washington.

Instead of staying locally, the Lebanon duo joined the Blue Devils in hopes of competing against stronger competition. They got plenty of that, but Matte and Whaley also learned a lesson in getting along with others because of the amount of time the team spent together in Philly and Kentucky.

“It was just travel in one van,” Whaley said. “We usually arrive a day early to rest and then, the next day, we’re right into the basketball games. In Philly, we had two tournaments, so we stayed in a hotel. But in Kentucky, we stayed in one house, kind of like one big family.

“We’re really like a family. We joke a lot and we do have fun, we’re all close with each other, but we’re not shy with each other.”

Those bonds got a test in Philadelphia, where injuries limited the Blue Devils’ success. It wasn’t an issue in Kentucky, where Matte (11.6 points per game for Lebanon last winter) and Whaley (5.4 ppg) enjoyed a perfect 3-0 run in round-robin play and reached the round of 16, eventually finishing 7-1 for the week for the final ninth-place ranking.

“Everybody had to think about playing in front of college coaches, which often can be a lot of pressure; you can get nervous,” Matte said. “This is the first year that college coaches have been watching our team. That’s something we had to account for, but you have to play and not think about it.”

The Raider teammates also gained insight on the direction their high school careers may head in the future. The Blue Devils included at least three athletes who played New England prep school basketball last winter or will in the coming season.

That’s another form of road trip for another time, however. For Whaley and Matte, this summer’s travels reached the desired destination.

“It’s kind of tough, especially if you’re not playing well,” Whaley said. “Everybody is in a bad mood and gets real tense. But it’s pretty fun chilling with these guys.

“It is a long trip. It’s kind of hard if you get homesick or something. It’s all basketball, and when you’re not playing, there’s not much else to do. It was tough, but it was definitely worth it.”

Hanover’s J.J. Daniell also went a long way in AAU play this summer, as her Andover, Mass.-based squad, the New Hampshire Rivals, enjoyed its own form of national success.

The Rivals, made up of players from Massachusetts and Rhode Island as well as the Granite State, went 14-4 during the summer in tournaments held in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington. The Rivals ended their schedule by reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Junior Nationals tournament in the nation’s capital last month.

Daniell will be a senior at Hanover this year. She ranked sixth in Upper Valley scoring last winter at 13.4 points per game for the Marauders, who went 19-4 and reached the NHIAA Division II semifinals.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.