By Michael Berg ’16 and Joel Dunoff ‘15
There is an annual tradition at Lower Merion at the beginning of the offseason: Coach Gregg Downer delivers a dose of reality. This year, his remarks to the team focused on the departure of two key seniors.
“Justin McFadden, gone. The winningest player in Lower Merion history is out the door.” Coach Downer continued, “JaQuan Johnson, gone. One of the best point guards in District One has left for good.”
He looked around the room at a group of young players, most of whom have never played a meaningful varsity minute. “Right now,” he said, “This team is not beating anyone.”
Some players thought Coach Downer exaggerated to light a figurative fire under our butts. Many of us knew Coach Downer was right.
Unlike years past, this edition of the Lower Merion Aces headed into the offseason with a roster filled with question marks and little varsity experience. Only three returning players – seniors Jule Brown, Steve Pendleton and Corey Sherman – have competed in the hot fires of the Central League and PIAA playoffs. The rest played JV or sat on the varsity team’s bench. The team needed to begin building chemistry and camaraderie.
Sensing this, the coaches planned to continue another tradition of Aces Basketball – a summer trip. In the past, LM teams have traveled to locations like California, Montana and North Carolina to combine basketball with team-building activities. This year, the team would head to New England for Dartmouth College team camp and some experiences in the great outdoors. The coaches hoped the trip would help bring a youthful bunch together on and off the court.
Assistant Coach Doug Young recited the trip’s itinerary. It included a ropes course, white water rafting, and, of course, basketball. Finally, Coach Young exclaimed that the team would climb Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire. The ascent would include a stay in a hostel atop the mountain with -- to our horror -- no cell phone reception.
On a crisp June morning, twelve of us apprehensively hopped into vans in the parking lot at LMHS, and the trip began. After a stop at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, where we learned about legends of the game, and some pick-up basketball at nearby Northampton High School, we drove to our hotel in Hanover, New Hampshire to rest up for an action-packed first full day of the trip.
The next morning, the team woke up early, stuffed ourselves at the waffle bar at the hotel and set off on our first challenge: The Dartmouth High Ropes Course. The team would be suspended by rope more than 30 feet above the ground, relying solely upon other teammates for balance as we made our way through various obstacles and elements. Many players balked due to a fear of heights. Slowly, the team’s courage and collective chemistry grew as each set of obstacles was completed. We conquered our fears through the continued encouragement and help from teammates and coaches -- a vital sign of team growth.
That growth continued later that day, as the team volunteered to run a clinic at the Marion Cross Elementary School in Norwich, Vermont with renowned New England coach Doc Donohue, a friend of Coach Young’s from his college days at Dartmouth. Nearly 60 kids of all ages participated in the clinic, which benefited Coaches vs. Cancer. For more than four hours, we ran drills and had fun getting to know the kids from the area. Later, during the first of our nightly conversations to close each day, we reflected on how much we enjoyed teaching the eager young players. The clinic was definitely an unexpected highlight of the trip.
The next day, the Dartmouth College team camp began. In the first game -- our first time playing together -- poor team play brought a frustrating two-point loss to one of New Hampshire’s prep powerhouses, Bishop Guertin. But things slowly came together during each of the next games. We won our next five games, including two wins against Greens Farms Academy, the winner of the New England Prep School Athletic Conference. In the last game of the camp, the Aces avenged their loss to Bishop Guertin with a double-digit win. The team had transformed from a group of individual players to a winning team.
After a successful camp (and a broken waffle maker at the hotel), the Aces were off to our next stop – Camp Tecumseh in Moultonborough, NH. Assistant Coach Blake Stabert is one of the directors of the camp and invited us to come by after our full weekend of hoops. Tecumseh is a legendary New England summer camp and it was easy to see why. It is located on Lake Winnipesaukee and has a spectacular waterfront and lots of other great facilities. We enjoyed some wiffle ball and indoor soccer and then headed down to the lake to cool off and take turns jumping off the massive floating high dive.
After saying goodbye to Coach Stabert, we were off to our next destination. Carrying doubts and fully-charged cell phones, the Aces approached Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We exited the vans and looked up at the massive mountain, looming above us. After filling our backpacks with overnight supplies, we headed off on the steep trail up the mountain.
Initial complaints slowly gave way to appreciation for the challenging hike up to our destination for the evening – the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Lodge, situated at around 4,200 feet of elevation. After about two hours of hiking, we began to see awesome views of the valley below and some other peaks off in the distance. When we arrived at the Lodge, the views were breathtaking. In the light of the late afternoon, we saw dense, green forest, a nearby alpine lake and seemingly endless mountains rolling all the way to the horizon. After the sun went down, we were awed by the night sky, with more stars than any of us had seen before. Completely exhausted, the team wolfed down a meal, sharing tables with other hikers from around the world and hearing fascinating stories from two hikers who were in the midst of walking the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. We played games like Scrabble and chess and some of us just stayed outside and looked at the stars before calling it a night and heading to our bunk beds in the lodge.
After a great night’s sleep, the team made its way to the top of Mount Lafayette early the next morning. Morning clouds near the peak dissipated, giving way to even more spectacular scenery. We arrived at the summit and paused to admire the views and our accomplishment. Passing hikers were surprised to hear that we were a high school basketball team. And while we may have looked out of place, we were happy to bathe in the morning mist and each other’s company. We may not have known what we were getting into the day before, but now we certainly felt like we belonged.
In today’s world it is incredibly difficult to have great face-to-face conversations. There are too many distractions. Without cell phone coverage and electronics, the Aces connected with each other on the mountain, immersing ourselves in “The Geography Game” and a draft of the best international basketball players, among other conversations that lasted for hours. The hike offered the team the chance – and time -- to appreciate that there is a lot more to the world than basketball.
Next, the Aces drove north to a remote section of Maine for a white water rafting trip, again offline. We arrived at the Northern Outdoors Center, our base camp for the Kennebec River. We dropped our bags in our cabins and headed to the main lodge to play some cornhole and eat dinner.
The next day, after a presentation on river safety, we boarded buses and drove to the put-in spot on the Kennebec. We carried our rafts down to the riverbank, excited and a little nervous when we saw the first few rapids and the enormous dam that would release millions of cubic feet of water to help power our journey.
It was a perfect day on the water. The class four rapids were exhilarating and kept us soaked, which was particularly welcome on a hot, sunny day. We went through rapids named Big Mama and Magic Falls and had a chance to swim a few smaller rapids (by choice) outside the rafts. The experience inspired certain players to seek even more challenging rapids in the future. As the river slowed up in the afternoon, we had time to relax, talking with teammates, coaches and guides as we drifted along the water.
After departing northern Maine, and making a quick detour in Freeport for a visit to the outlets and a delicious seafood lunch on the docks, we headed south to Boston. On a walking tour of the city, several members of the team became traitors and bought an assortment of gear that represented New England teams. Those who called themselves faithful Phillies fans donned brand new Red Sox hats proudly. After these Arnoldian travesties, and dinner at Quincy Market, the team walked to Bunker Hill to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. Despite getting lost in the hustle and bustle of Boston, the Aces enjoyed the fireworks and the city itself. A late ride on the “T” brought the team back to the hotel, and one last evening before heading back to LM.
Quite simply, the trip brought the team together in ways that we could not have imagined. Leadership among the players was established. The Lower Merion pillars of success, hustle and defense, were clearly evident. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a group of strangers became close friends. That’s really what the trip was for, and all of the Aces would agree that the trip was a resounding success. As clichéd as it sounds, a collection of basketball players became a team.