Friday, March 5, 2010

Hofstra Blog Swap! America East Tournament memories with Defiantly Dutch

Hi folks. I’m Jerry Beach. You may recognize me from such roles as Hofstra Basketball Historian, Obsessive-Compulsive Tweeter and Most Hated Guy In Mason Nation. I’m here today as part of the first-ever HOFSTRA BLOG SWAP!!!

Gary Moore and I have put aside our bitter, violent rivalry (note to Gary: Jeremy Kniffin already treats me like he’s a Big East SID, so he’s waaaaay ahead of you!) and agreed to post on each other’s site as our beloved Flying Dutchmen prepare to become the first CAA champion ever to win four games in four days.

I was going to write about Hofstra’s history in conference tournaments, but Gary’s excellent post about the CAA Tournament experiences reminded me of the good times my friends and I had while traveling to the America East tournament from 1999 through 2001. So I thought it’d be fun to give you a look back at the pre-CAA days.

Back then, before marriages and children and the real world made weekend getaways more difficult, my future wife and our gang of friends—all of whom met at the campus newspaper, The Chronicle—would pile into a couple cars and head down the Jersey Turnpike. We stayed at the Howard Johnson’s right down the block from the Bob Carpenter Center and ate at the chain restaurants between the two places.

Like Gary’s trips, our journeys generated memories and inside jokes that remain funny to this day. There was the year a Friendly’s waitress did everything except strip naked in an attempt to pick up one of our shy friends…the year one of our buddies got drunk and served himself after-hours at the Dunkin’ Donuts (I may not have been there for that one, but I’ve heard and told it enough so that it’s OK)…the year one of our buddies took his new girlfriend on the trip and “overslept” the first morning, missing the first session of quarterfinal games…the year we went to Atlantic City on Saturday night and spent the entire trip back doing profane impersonations of the friends foolish enough not to join us.

One year—I think it was 1999—our cars barely made it back to Long Island. My friend Greg’s van had only one functioning windshield wiper, a problem during a heavy rain storm. And my girlfriend’s car started making weird noises before we even got to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The most fun might have been our first, briefest and smallest trip in 1996. I believe it was the first year the North Atlantic Conference hosted the pre-championship rounds at Delaware. It was my senior year of college and my friend Ray and I went down to cover the tournament for The Chronicle.

Hofstra was the seven seed and not very good—they were 5-13 in conference and ended the season with 10 losses in their final 12 games—but they were facing 10th-seeded Northeastern, which finished 2-16 in the NAC. So we figured we had a pretty good shot at seeing the Dutchmen win at least one game.

Yeah, not so much. Northeastern made it three NAC wins with a 71-61 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. I was pretty bummed out afterward—as a budding journalist, I knew the job market was going to suck for, oh, the rest of time—and remember feeling some kind of kinship with Hofstra seniors Matt Carpenter and Chris Johnke, who walked off the court with an arm draped around the other after the game.

The night got much better from there as Ray and I went to a bar called The Stone Balloon and drowned our sorrows. This place was GREAT—just the perfect college bar. No frills, just a big warehouse where people drank and cover bands played. I wish I remembered the name of the band that did a scorching version that night of the Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom” that was better than the already-awesome real thing. (Unfortunately, the bar closed in 2006)

We bounced to the music, all the while thinking we were about to outgrow nights like this. Well, I thought that anyway. I’m pretty sure Ray wasn’t thinking much of anything as he drank enough to quench an entire army.

Afterward, we made it back to our hotel and partied with the New Hampshire team, which had just lost to Hartford. I have no idea why we partied with a rival and not Hofstra, maybe the Dutchmen had already taken off, but we had a good time.

The next morning was a different story. Ray was nursing a monster hangover, but he drove us down in his stick shift so I couldn’t help him out on the way home. Everything was fine until we got to the Belt Parkway, where the daily traffic jam was taking place.

Ray, hungover and tired and impatient, uttered the greatest line ever: “There better be some freaking CARNAGE up there!” We still use that one, 14 years later.

We went to the Stone Balloon again in 1999, and for the first time ever, I felt old. We were so obviously the elder statesmen there. Nobody paid us any attention, but we knew the era in which we could hang at college bars had passed. Get off my lawn!!

The years in which we went to the America East tournament were particularly interesting because we saw the Dutchmen complete their ascension as an America East power. In 1999, Hofstra was still among the second-tier America East teams—the best of the second-tier, as evidenced by the Dutchmen’s NIT appearance that year, but still not considered a threat to win it all. And with Speedy Claxton hurt, the Dutchmen got blown out by Drexel in the semifinals.

In 2000 and 2001, though, the Dutchmen were the no. 1 seed, which made the Dutchmen (and, by extension, us) the most hated people in The First State. Whomever Hofstra played was the adopted team of the BOB, since a loss by Hofstra would give Delaware (seeded third in 2000 and second in 2001) a good shot at hosting the title game.

But the Dutchmen won their quarterfinal and semifinal games by double digits both years (though Maine gave us a helluva scare in the first half of the 2001 semifinal) before, of course, beating Delaware in the title game I remember, as time expired in the 2000 semifinal win over Drexel, yelling “SEE YOU IN HEMPSTEAD!!!”

The next year, we were seated behind a group of Delaware fans. At some point during the Dutchmen’s first game against Vermont, we began to annoy them with our constant Hofstra talk and they started chirping at us. We went back and forth for a while, arguing over whose state and whose school sucks more, but eventually we started laughing and we ended up hanging out with them all weekend. If this happened in 2010, we would be Facebook friends right now!

With Hofstra, Delaware, Drexel and Towson all leaving for the CAA at the end of the season, there was a bit of a bittersweet feeling to the 2001 tournament despite the Dutchmen’s dominance. We knew the Dutchmen wouldn’t thrive right away in their new league and that it would never be this easy again to go to the conference tournament.

The set-up in the America East was just perfect. The BOB is a wonderful venue, Delaware fans were passionate and filled the joint and the environment was a big-time one. We could get there in three hours with no traffic, the lodging was affordable and nobody had to miss any work to attend.

I imagine the Virginia-based fans in the CAA feel the same way, which is why you will never hear me complain about the tournament being in Richmond. Sure, it’s inconvenient for us, but Delaware wasn’t convenient for fans of Maine, Boston or Northeastern. It makes sense—and cents—for the league to host the tournament in a location central to most of its teams and in an area that will draw the most fans. Delaware made the conference title game in its final four years in the A-East. Did the home court advantage help? I’m sure. I’m also sure we never complained about it (cough, George Mason fans, cough cough).

We haven’t gone to a conference tournament since Hofstra joined the CAA. Part of it is geography, but a bigger part is that damn thing called adulthood. We’re not all on the Island any more, and most of the gang has kids and jobs that make it tough to take a four- or five-day weekend. Some of our friends follow sports less now than they did then, though Ray has season tickets with us. Going to Richmond wasn’t even a real consideration when Hofstra was the three seed and one of the favorites in 2006 and 2007.

Nor has history been on the side of the Dutchmen: Since the start of the Defiantly Dutch Era in 1993-94 (my first year on campus), a team seeded first or second has won all but two of the conference tournaments in which Hofstra has participated. Our good friends at George Mason won it all as the three seed two years ago.

But as I sit here and type tonight, I am thinking of the 1994 Flying Dutchmen, who were the fifth seed in the six-team East Coast Conference (a temporary league with no automatic bid that folded after the season). The Chronicle was willing to pay for me to fly up to Buffalo with the team, but the Dutchmen had about two wins when the offer was made and plus, Bryan Adams was coming to Madison Square Garden for his only U.S. show of the year the same day as the ECC title game.

A bunch of my friends from home wanted to come down, see the show and crash in my dorm room. How could I pass up an Adams show—you will find this hard to believe now, but he was one of the world’s biggest rock stars 16 years ago—and such a cool bonding experience with my buddies to go to Buffalo and see the Dutchmen lose their opener?

Alas, the Dutchmen, who won six regular season games, made fools out of me, winning three games in as many days—the second in overtime and the championship game in double overtime—to win the championship and send the legendary Butch van Breda Kolff out a winner. The Adams show was pretty good, but I kick myself multiple times per day for missing the awesome experience of seeing the Dutchmen win the ECC. (You think I’m kidding)

And I wonder if history is going to repeat itself this year. Sure, the CAA is light years better than the old ECC, and the odds are against the Dutchmen winning four games in four days. And their quarterfinal opponent, as long as they get past Georgia State, is Northeastern, which won’t have any trouble getting focused after the Dutchmen’s upset win in Boston 10 days ago.

But the Dutchmen are red-hot and have the CAA player of the year in Charles Jenkins, who has been otherworldly during the Dutchmen’s 9-1 run. As I’ve written at my blog: Sports is all about throwing caution and logic to the wind and believing in the long shot. And I’m not sure I could take missing TWO historic championship runs by the Dutchmen.

So my wife and I are seriously thinking about driving down to Virginia Saturday morning if the Dutchmen win Friday. Hopefully we’ll see you there—creating more inside jokes, making more memories and watching another NCAA Tournament-bound Flying Dutchmen team. Oh yeah, and insulting Gary from a distance!

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