Katelyn E. Clooney
For five days, earlier this month, Springfield College was crawling with high school students. No, there was not an open house. An accepted students luncheon was not being held. It was HoopHall that briefly lowered the average age of those walking our campus.
The 2015 Spalding HoopHall Classic, a national high school invitational, was held at our very own Blake Arena on Jan. 15-19. Each year, HoopHall, which promises “the nation’s top high school talent under one roof for one weekend only,” features some of the country’s best high school basketball players and teams. Now, the location is fitting, considering that Springfield College is “The Birthplace of Basketball.” However, the actual experience is still very surreal. Kyrie Irving, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson and Kemba Walker have all participated in HoopHall. Twelve HoopHall alums were first-round picks in last year’s NBA draft, including No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
In June 2017, you will most likely hear the names of several of this year’s HoopHall attendees, as they walk across the stage and shake the hand of Commissioner Silver, as he welcomes them to the NBA. During the first two days of HoopHall, however, the competition was a bit more modest, as local teams, most of whom were from Western Mass., took the court. On Thursday, Longmeadow withstood a comeback by Sabis Charter and Putman cruised to a 75-59 win over rival, Central. On Thursday, the only day of girls’ hoops, Sabis and Central both got revenge, as Sabis’ comeback attempt was successful the second time around and Central best West Springfield.
Early Saturday morning, several players, coaches, team personnel and media flocked from area hotels to Blake Arena, as our college became home to national basketball powerhouses. Findlay Prep (NV), who came into the weekend as the No. 1 ranked team in the country, cruised to a 84-58 win over No. 17 Stevenson (IL). No. 2 Roselle Catholic (NJ) also took the court, and was defeated by by No. 23. Dematha (MD). Many other teams from across the country including Chicago’s Simeon, which boasts alums such as Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, were also in action on Saturday.
The real crowd pleaser, however, was Putnam. The Springfield public school, fresh off their victory over Central, just two days earlier, would again step onto the court of Blake Arena, this time to face Corona del Sol, the No. 22 team in the country. While Putnam is back-to-back state champion, Corona del Sol is a three-time defending Arizona state champion. Entering the game, the Aztecs owned a 110-7 record since the start of the 2011-12 season and a 16-1 record on the year. Even to someone with zero knowledge of the sport of basketball, the difference between the two teams, as they took the court, was pronounced. The Arizona squad was much larger and also appeared much more skillful during warmups. “What are they doing here?” said a fellow member of press row, as he confusingly gazed at the local squad. Also notable, during warmups, was the attire of Jonathan Garcia. Garcia, Putnam’s distributer and best player, was in street clothes, as he fed balls to his team’s layup line. The guard had briefly left during the Central game, with a right ankle injury, but did return. It was clear, however, that Putman would have to go through this game without their senior leader.
Sure enough, Corona del Sol jumped to a 12-4 lead late in the first quarter and lead by ten, 32-22, at the half. However, after switching to a zone defense in the second half, Putman began to close in.
“Anything they could give, they brought it,” applauded Putman Coach William Shepard. The closer the game, the louder the crowd, as clapping and stomping filled the arena, and cheers echoed off the ceiling. Chants of “Defense, De-fense, DEEE-FENSE,” by the Springfield fans, propelled Putnam to a 42-41 lead, after three. As Corona del Sol began the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run, the chants were replaced with boos, geared at the visiting team. Putnam once again fought back, as the first 32 minutes ended in a 55-55 and the last game of the night was heading into overtime.
Both teams struggled offensively, in the extra frame, as the scored was tied at 57, with less than a minute remaining. Another overtime seemed imminent, until Corona del Sol sank a three with less than two seconds remaining. Putnam could not convert on the other end, as they lost a heartbreaker, 60-57. However, even in defeat, the team was hopeful. “Our confidence is through the roof right now, exclaimed an exuberant Ty Nichols, postgame. Nichols, who scored 14 points in the loss, continued, “I’m proud of everyone on this team. We’re all family, we’re all brothers. We’re going to stick together and we’re going to go out there and try to three-peat. That’s our goal.”
After giving credit to the local fans, which he said was a “huge” factor in the game, Nichols said he hoped that this game would attract even more people to the Putnam gym, especially college coaches, whom he had a message for. “You need to come out here and check out some of the talent, the local talent.” Sheppard agreed, and said the the other aim for the season is to “really let them know Putnam basketball.”
As prep schools took the court on Sunday and some of the top players laced up on Monday, individual talent failed to replace the excitement that was in the air during the Putnam game. On Monday, as Ivan Rabb, the No. 6 player in the country, discussed his upcoming college visits and Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in the country, fielded my question about his team’s defense against Chase Jeter and Stephen Zimmerman, the No. 9 and 10 players in the country, neither seemed to smile as wide as Ty Nichols. As crews from ESPN filled Blake Arena, none of the broadcasters seemed as passionate as those Putnam fans. Yes, Monday’s nationally-televised action featured high-flying dunks and textbook shooting form, but, the Disney-owned company missed Saturday night; they missed the real magic.
As our campus, once again, is filled with college students, it is my hope that, next year, Ty Nichols will get his wish and that coaches and media will come a couple of days earlier to see the talent that the city, in which the game was invented, has to offer.