By Mike Buchwald '11
Last year, I had the opportunity to take part in the Aces’ summer trip to California and wrote an article for aceshoops.com about many of the things that make Lower Merion Basketball so unique and amazing. Our latest action-packed adventure to Gonzaga University, Montana and Wyoming provided me with some new insights and feelings, though all of the themes from our incredible ride through the Golden State still ring true.
Unlike last year, when the roster was full of returning varsity players, this year’s trip featured a number of players with little varsity experience. Our basketball/wilderness expedition would provide a perfect opportunity for the veterans to spend quality time with a group of fresh faces, including five talented underclassmen and several seniors who have worked their way up the ranks at Lower Merion to earn the privilege of a summer trip. All of the players deserve credit for their unwavering dedication to LM Basketball, but it also says something about the program to reward guys who have put in so much time and may not yet have had the opportunity to put on a varsity uniform. I know there were, and still are, plenty of times when I have no idea if my hard work is paying off. LM Basketball makes sure hard work is not overlooked and that the experiences (and benefits) go beyond basketball. While other schools may reserve their top roster spots for those who are merely the best athletes, I feel lucky to be part of a program that rewards character, dedication and commitment.
Day 1-5: Gonzaga Team Camp
After a 4:40 AM start and a long day of traveling, our eighteen man crew (15 players and 3 coaches) arrived in Spokane, Washington, home of basketball-crazed Gonzaga University. We were greeted by Bulldogs assistant basketball coach Brian Michaelson, director of Gonzaga’s high school team camp. Coach Michaelson led us to our dorms and informed us that we had traveled the farthest of any team in camp history.
Gonzaga is one of the most successful basketball programs in the country, and has the longest league championship streak among Division 1 teams. Our coaches have always been interested in the Zags as they seem to get the most out of their players and are a small mid-major that regularly beats “major” teams. After a quick practice in the historic Martin Center, we hit the town. Apart from a good Italian dinner, Spokane was a bit of a ghost town. But not to worry, because the Aces had four straight days of basketball to play. Split into two teams of seven and eight players, the Aces posted an impressive 11-1 combined record against teams from Washington, Oregon, California and Canada. One of the highlights was playing in a “warehouse” owned and operated by NBA Hall of Famer and Gonzaga grad John Stockton. He has the complete Utah Jazz home court from his playing days in the Delta Center in the facility. We also had an opportunity to tour the Gonzaga locker room and team room, which features flat screen tv’s, big leather couches and life size pictures of recent Gonzaga greats like Adam Morrison and Ronny Turiaf. There’s also a surfboard trophy from Gonzaga’s recent Maui Invitational championship.
Day 5-8: Whitefish, Glacier & Blackfeet Country
After the tiring grind of constant, yet fun basketball, we packed our bags and headed east from Washington to Whitefish, Montana. Under a setting sun, the squad arrived at Flathead Lake – the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi – for one of the most memorable activities of the trip. Armed with three wave runners and an inner tube, and led by the fun-loving “Ron” from Wild Waves Boat Charters, we raced across the crystal clear lake. For the next two and a half hours, we were at peace. Whizzing around an endless expanse of blue at 50 miles an hour, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountain peaks is something I personally will not soon forget.
We then ventured into the wild. It was a true juxtaposition. One day we were playing basketball at Gonzaga, and the next day we were hiking above treeline in one of the country’s greatest wildernesses, Glacier National Park. A scenic drive up the park’s famed Going to the Sun Road led us to Logan Pass, the starting point for the Highline Trail -- an 11.4 mile trek that tested our will and endurance. Along the way, we traversed alpine meadows, narrow ridges, snowfields (during the middle of summer) and had 360 degree views of mountains, waterfalls and glaciers. We also had to stop a couple of times along the trail to make way for some mountain goats. I was one of a small group that decided to hike an extra 1.6 miles to the top of a ridge that overlooked what seemed to be the entire park. That high up, the only sound is the wind. My co-climbers and I just sat with the wind at our back and gazed at an immense glacier and two giant crystal clear lakes thousands of feet below. It felt even more satisfying because we had just hiked basically two miles straight up. That view will be stuck in my head for a long, long time.
Our next stop was Browning, the main town in the heart of Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation. We slept in traditional tipis, each complete with its own personal fire pit for warmth. During our days on the reservation, we played some ball, learned about local history and culture and got to know each other much more closely. The Blackfeet take their basketball – called “rez ball” – very seriously and they can really play. A little Friday night pick-up game at the local courts provided an awesome display of the skill and talent level on the rez. After we got our butts kicked thoroughly, we found out the same players who did the butt kicking had won the Montana state championship about five years ago. The next day we helped out at a children’s basketball camp in the Browning High School gym (and handed out some Aces Nation t-shirts) and played pick-up with members of the current varsity team; we were much more evenly matched. Everywhere we went in Blackfeet country, we were warmly received and people loved talking hoops with us. Our visit to Browning also included a side trip to the Two Medicine area of Glacier Park, where we went cliff diving below the breathtaking Running Eagle Falls.
Day 8-9: Helena & Big Sky
From Browning we headed south through spectacular ranch country to the state capital of Helena for the Last Chance Stampede and Rodeo, one of the biggest events of the year for Montanans. It turned out to be one of the more memorable nights of the trip. Besides the normal rodeo traditions such as bucking broncos and bull riding, we were awed by the extraordinary “monkey cowboys.” Yes, that’s monkeys dressed as cowboys, riding dogs and wrangling sheep. It was a life changing experience. We also witnessed the frenzied, closing minutes of the rodeo when five thousand Montanans shook the stands in a foot-stomping sing-along to “Cotton Eyed Joe.” I think I speak for all of the Aces when I say it was amusing and entertaining to experience the whole “county fair” scene.
Our last stop in Montana was Big Sky, the state’s best known resort and ski area. After camping and sleeping in tipis, it was a nice change from roughing it in the outdoors. The lodging was excellent – the group split up into three big cabins. Giant pool-like hot tubs and a nice lunch at a restaurant made us feel like we were in paradise. Our itinerary at Big Sky included paintball and a high ropes team-building course. During the activities, weather took us by surprise. Just as I was beginning the high ropes course, a huge storm swept down from the mountain and it started to hail. It was very strange to see big balls of ice rain down like b-b gun bullets in the middle of summer. Luckily, (even though I was dangling from ropes 40 feet above the ground) I was wearing a helmet. Our one night in Big Sky was another memorable one. We all pitched in to cook a huge bar-b-que meal at the cabins. One of our coaches happens to be a bang-up musician, so we decided to have our own American Idol competition. We split up into three groups and created and performed our own songs. It was hilarious.
Day 10-13 Yellowstone & Grand Teton
We then commenced with the final portion of our trip, a few days at Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. In Yellowstone, we saw the major sights like Old Faithful, the various hot springs and Yellowstone Falls. I think all were inspired at one of the most scenic views in the park, Inspiration Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Journeying through the park, we saw hundreds of bison, some big horn sheep, and even a couple of moose. Some of us went on a fishing trip at Yellowstone Lake, while another group took a hike up to the 11,000 foot peak of Mount Washburn. One of the highlights was swimming and cliff jumping (despite a park ranger’s objection) into the hot-spring warmed waters of the Firehole River. Camping under the enormous night sky in Yellowstone was amazing. We were able to see shooting stars, satellites and tried to identify a few constellations. And we of course kept our food stored in bear lockers – there had been a grizzly attack in the area a few days earlier and we were taking no chances.
We camped in the Tetons as well and drove into the cool little town of Jackson at night for some pizza and a movie (the very average “Dinner for Schmucks”). A big storm came through while we were sleeping and knocked one of the tents to the ground, forcing a bunch of us to scramble into the vans to stay dry. Our last two days rounded out with a hike through Cascade Canyon, where we witnessed a fierce battle between a snake and a fish at a little pond (the fish got away) and came face-to-face with a bull moose. On our final day, we went white water rafting on the Snake River. It was great to see a couple of the guys who aren’t the strongest swimmers enthusiastically volunteer to ride the nose of the raft during the most intense rapids. It was a kind of a theme of the trip – being out there made us want to try to experience as many new things as possible.
After a quick shower and a wiffle ball game, we packed our bags and headed to the airport, pausing for one more team pic in front of the majestic Teton Range. We were all sad that the trip was ending, but ready to go home. Due to some delays out of Jackson airport, it was a mad dash to make our connecting flight in Denver. The final highlight of the trip was 18 Aces sprinting through Denver International to make sure we caught our ride home. At around 1 AM, we landed back in Philly. Exhausted from travel, we brought it in for one last huddle and chant of “1-2-3 Aces!” and then parted ways – temporarily. Although the trip was over, we had all grown much closer and the new faces were now close members of the family. In the weeks and months ahead I know we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other as friends and teammates.
Aces players who made the trip west included: Mike Buchwald ’11, Mike Capkin ’11, Luke Chambers ’11, Avi Chatterjee ’11, Doug Cotler ’13, Yohanny Dalembert ’13, Colin Eisenstaedt ’11, Darius Hall ’11, BJ Johnson ’13, CJ Jones ’11, Mark Krantz ’11, Matt McKenna ’11, Dan Peterson ’11, Mike Robbins ’12, Bryce Williamson ’12. Coaches included Chris McKenna, Marc Tannebaum and Doug Young.
Mike Buchwald is a rising senior at Lower Merion High School and a member of the Lower Merion Aces varsity basketball team.