Thanksgiving is an unusual part of the college calendar, which makes it an unusual part of the college basketball calendar. I suspect it's similar elsewhere, but at a small liberal arts college with 2800 students, like Holy Cross, students and faculty rapidly vacate campus a couple of days before Thanksgiving and five or six days later all converge back on campus for two hectic weeks of classes followed by a week of finals. It's as if the campus is taking a collective deep breath to relax and clear their minds before taking an important free throw.
In Massachusetts, high school American style football dominates the sports landscape at Thanksgiving. Those NFL games are almost an afterthought. Every newspaper and broadcast TV network affiliate in the state sends cameras and reporters across the area looking for compelling match-ups and stories, as schools vie for bragging rights against long time rivals and final positioning for the playoffs. At least two of the local Boston affiliates broadcast 30 minute wrap ups of all the high school action from eastern and central Massachusetts.
So, in spite of what's happening on the court, a college basketball game in Massachusetts on the campus of a small liberal arts college, during Thanksgiving break can feel like anything but a serious competition in the stands. When that game takes place on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, well anything resembling energy in the crowd leaves quickly as a result of fasting before the feast.
The University of Hartford traveled 60 miles up I-84 to Worcester on Thanksgiving Eve to take on Holy Cross at the Hart Center with that backdrop. Just five nights earlier, more than 1200 students enlivened the DCU Center in downtown Worcester and saw the Crusaders take on, and handily beat, Boston College. Tonight however, most of those 1200 were already home for Thanksgiving.
Uggggh! What a night for a game!
There were a dozen or so fans behind the Hartford bench and though I'm sure some local alumni and fans made the drive to the top of the Holy Cross campus get out of the way of (or avoid) Thanksgiving preparations at home, a surprisingly good crowd of almost 1100 fans were in attendance.
The student sections at the Hart Center, however were, as expected, virtually empty.
But, virtually empty is not empty.
As I entered the gym I noticed one purple and white striped Rugby shirt in the east end zone seats of the Hart Center. A single member of the band was setting up his drum quad with his baritone horn at his side. This lone musician was ready to bring his own energy to the game, anyway he could.
Pre-recorded music filled the gym with the normal range of pre-game sound but, understandably, the band's traditional of playing of "I Can't Turn You Loose," to end on the pre-game buzzer was bypassed. A second student made his way to the scorer's table to sing the national anthem. I don't know if he stayed for the game, but if he did stay, he didn't sit in the student section. Nonetheless our musician was in it for the game, looking for spots to add any rhythm or energy to the game. Recorded music and PA announcements however continued to fill the voids.
As the first media time-out approached, my son said, "Look, here comes a trombone." A second student in a purple and white rugby shirt had entered the gym and was walking behind the scorer's table on his way to the band section, instrument in hand.
He quickly joined the drummer/baritone horn player with his trombone.
Now we had a band! They warmed up with a quick rendition of Hedwig's theme from the Harry Potter movies. It seemed hauntingly appropriate as it echoed through the gym. A couple of false starts occurred when the PA announcer - perhaps trying to fill an anticipated void - seemed to forget the band was there and stretched the announcements, taking much longer than usual to complete them, but our band persevered. Despite a severely limited repertoire, they got in about half a dozen make-shift numbers throughout the night and were surprisingly effective - after all, two low brass instruments and a drum quad do not make it easy to find acceptable pep band tunes!
And the game was good too.
With Holy Cross' back-up point guard Dee Goens in street clothes, coach Milan Brown needed to be creative to find relief for freshman point guard Justin Burrell. Four year walk-on senior Jeff Harris filled in for 5 minutes throughout the game and scored the first field goal of his college career - a 3-pointer! And guys playing unfamiliar roles, notably senior Devin Brown at the point gave the Crusaders and Burrell enough of what they needed. A 26 - 6 run to close out the final 9 minutes of the first half gave Holy Cross an 18 point lead at the break. A steady Hartford attack allowed the Hawks to fight back in the second half but Holy Cross always had an answer. Hartford never got closer than 10 points and Holy Cross walked out with an 80 - 66 victory.
As the game wound down, I moved down next to the band. As they do when all games reach the final horn, win or lose, they played "Chu Chu Rah Rah!" the Holy Cross fight song. I approached them, told them nice job and asked why they were still around when everyone else had left campus. Five words were all I got.
"I live 20 minutes away." One of them said.
They then simultaneously raised their horn and trombone and started counting.
"Ready ...1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4"
They still had work to do and they were serious about it.
Tradition and routine called for two more songs. Across the gym, I saw other fans I wanted to wish Happy Thanksgiving, so I left the band momentarily while "Hoiah Holy Cross" followed by the Holy Cross "Alma Mater" played in the background. I'll talk to the band when their work is done, I thought.
A few minutes later, I looked up from my conversation trying to find the band so I could thank them again and at least get their names. But, the instruments were packed up and the band was across the floor, almost out the exit.
For them, Thanksgiving break had arrived. It was time to take a deep breath, relax, and clear their minds to finish the semester home stretch strong.
Good luck, guys. And thanks!
Authors Note: Thanksgiving guests and real life responsibilities can sure delay a submission! Good thing the Mid Majority has no copy deadline for us wannabe reporters!
at HOLY CROSS 80, HARTFORD 66 11/23/2011
HARTFORD 0-5 (0-0) -- B. Miles 1-4 2-6 4; A. Torres 5-7 2-3 15; Y. Moore II 4-11 0-0 11; G. Maciel 3-12 0-0 8; N. Sikma 1-7 2-2 4; W. Cole 3-11 0-0 8; C. Brothers 0-1 2-2 2; M. Nwakamma 2-5 2-2 6; J. Schneck 4-5 0-0 8; C. Wroe 0-2 4-4 4; R. Baker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-61 12-13 66. HOLY CROSS 2-3 (0-0) -- D. Brown 7-10 0-0 17; R. Evans 4-7 2-3 10; J. Burrell 4-7 0-2 10; J. Stevens 6-7 1-2 17; P. Beans 3-7 0-0 6; D. Dudzinski 1-3 2-2 5; E. Obeysekere 2-4 3-4 7; M. Miller 2-3 0-0 5; T. Abt 0-2 0-0 0; J. Harris 1-3 0-0 3. Totals 30-53 8-13 80.
Three-point goals: HART 10-34 (A. Torres 3-4; G. Maciel 2-7; W. Cole 2-10; M. Nwakamma 0-1; C. Wroe 0-1; Y. Moore II 3-7; N. Sikma 0-4), HC 12-21 (D. Brown 3-5; R. Evans 0-1; J. Harris 1-2; J. Stevens 4-4; P. Beans 0-2; D. Dudzinski 1-1; J. Burrell 2-3; M. Miller 1-2; T. Abt 0-1); Rebounds: HART 28 (G. Maciel 5), HC 34 (D. Dudzinski 7); Assists: HART 10 (G. Maciel 3), HC 22 (J. Burrell 6); Total Fouls -- HART 17, HC 17; Fouled Out: HART-N. Sikma; HC-None.