Don Mahler: A Call to Arms for the Raider Nation
Lebanon Fans Will Need an Early Start to Get a Semifinal Seat
Raider Nation arise!
Now is the time for all good men, women and children to come to the aid of their high school boys basketball team.
The late winter snowstorm that has snarled traffic, closed schools and generally played havoc with daily life has also impacted the New Hampshire Division II boys basketball semifinals.
Originally scheduled for Wednesday at UNH’s Lundholm Gym, the semifinal doubleheader — featuring Lebanon vs. Portsmouth in the first game and Pembroke vs. Pelham in the second game — was moved to Thursday because of the storm.
No problem. Just a little bump in the road to a title. Only nobody told the storm it was just scheduled for a one-day appearance. The Upper Valley woke up to another dumping on Thursday, schools were closed again and the game forced — again — to be postponed.
And that’s when things started to get a little weird. First, the NHIAA announced that the semis will now be played today. OK. We can handle that.
But because of scheduling issues at UNH, the site and time of the games have been changed — to Exeter High School, with Lebanon tipping off at 5:30 p.m.
Now that’s an unfortunate set of circumstances on many levels. First, because Lebanon school policy shuts down all extracurricular activity if school is closed, not only were the Raiders unable to play a tournament game on Thursday, but they also were unable to use the gym for practice.
Unfortunately, while the Raiders sat on the sidelines Thursday, the rest of the schools in the Division II final four were going though their paces at their respective practices.
“It is what it is,” said Raiders coach Kieth Matte philosophically. “We’ll just go play ball.”
But they won’t play ball at UNH like they had aimed at all season long. That was the gift of winning two playoff games — to earn the opportunity of playing the semifinals in the UNH gym. To take that long walk up the stairway from the downstairs locker rooms to reach the playing court. To hear the bands, to see the crowd — all that emotion and connection to history … now lost in the whiteout of a snowstorm and official policy.
But what also will be lost is critical seating capacity. Exeter is a high school gym. Instead of thousands of available seats, there will be hundreds. And instead of the comfortable accommodation for four separate audiences, it will be a tight fit with a first-come, first-served environment.
What that means is that Raider Nation has to get its convoy gassed up and ready to go for the 100-mile trip sooner in the day, getting there earlier than the scheduled 5:30 start. And since the NHIAA doesn’t clear the gym between games, the people trying to get into the second game will be met by fewer available seats simply because the first game winners will hang around to find out who their team plays in the upcoming championship game.
The problem is that the other three teams left in the tourney are all within 30 miles of the Exeter game site. So it stands to reason that the other schools — with a much shorter drive — will seek to gain admittance earlier, thereby forcing the Lebanon crowd to end up on the outside looking in.
Like the old cheerleader chant says: “We got spirit, yes we do! We got spirit, how about you?” So how about it?
Time to step up for your boys, Lebanon. These guys deserve a chance to go to Durham and play in Lundholm Gym. They held up their end with two heart-stopping victories — winning their opening round game in overtime and then taking the quarterfinal game on a shot at the buzzer. (To make it easier on you, tickets are available in advance through www.nhiaa.org, the association’s website.)
Lebanon hasn’t been in the finals since winning the title back in 1998. A win on Friday sends the team — as the late Raider coaching great Lang Metcalf used to say — on that Yellow Bird back to Durham.
As for the finals, they will still be played Saturday at UNH, with tip-off at 3 p.m. Of course, none of the coaches are happy about that situation because it means back-to-back games for their teams at the most crucial point in the season.
But don’t worry about that now. What’s more important is to rally the support for the Friday trip to Exeter. After all your boys have gone through to get to this point, don’t force them to take the last step alone.
You know, they don’t call it March Madness for nothing.
Don Mahler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.