High School Hoops: Oh, What A Knight

Thomas Wolfe once wrote “You can’t go home again.”

I’m not exactly sure what he was talking about though. For me it was easy. Airline service to Hartford is plentiful, and from there it’s a short drive via either I-91 or I-84 to Ellington, CT.

Perhaps Mr. Wolfe had problems at the car rental counter. Or maybe I’m missing his point.

No matter – despite his warning, it would have been inconceivable for me to conduct a sports walkabout that didn’t include a stumble down memory lane. See, there’s high school basketball, and then there’s Ellington Knights high school basketball. I know this because back in the day, I proudly wore the purple and gold.

The Knights and Spartans Prepare To Tip Off

Although I am admittedly sketchy on some of the details, I do remember distinctly that back in the day, a game involving two of the North Central Connecticut Conference’s better teams required fans to arrive before the junior varsity game was too far into its second half if they wanted a seat for the varsity game. A full house was a foregone conclusion.

Apparently times have changed, for the gym at Somers High School was half-full at best when we took our seats for the game between the home-standing Spartans and my alma mater. The atmosphere could charitably be described as subdued.

Maybe it was the cheerleaders…or lack thereof. Of course the Somers squad was there doing its thing, but their visiting counterparts were nowhere to be found. I found this odd, because I always considered our cheerleaders to be an integral part of the team – and no, I wasn’t dating any of them.

All of our away games required two buses – one for players and one for cheerleaders and fans who were willing to pay a nominal fee for a ride to the game. Evidently, financial considerations forced a change shortly after I graduated. Rick recalled that three years later, when he was a senior, there had been just one bus to transport both team and cheerleaders. But having hormonally super-charged high school boys and girls on long rides in darkened buses created problems of a…well, less financial nature.

So now the one bus contains only players, and the sight of a visiting cheerleading squad is now an NCCC rarity. Sigh.

I was starting to see what Thomas Wolfe was talking about.

The JV game ended with an Ellington victory, and at one point during varsity warm-ups Rick nudged me and asked “Does that guy look familiar?”

He pointed to a man casually sauntering alongside the baseline of the court, on his way to a seat in the bleachers across the way. It was Court Harned, an Ellington sports legend that I grew up in awe of. In a span of two years, his EHS graduating class had won Connecticut state championships in baseball, soccer and basketball. In the latter sport, Harned created a Knights legacy that to my knowledge has never been approached. A first-team All-State guard as a junior and senior, he was a four-year starter and Ellington’s all-time leading scorer. I also seem to recall that Harned had even played varsity basketball as an eighth-grader.

Now with a son in the Knights program, Harned sat all but unnoticed in the stands as the next generation took ownership of the heritage. And immediately in front of me, Harned’s state championship teammate Don Flint was performing his duties as head coach of the Knights.

I myself had been fortunate enough to have played in a state championship game when I was a hoops-playing Knight, so on this particular evening we were bringing major alma mater karma to bear upon the young squires of Ellington High. They certainly stood to benefit, given that just one EHS team since my own had returned to the basketball title game – and only three times had the Knights won the NCCC.

This will never do.

Fortunately, the latest Ellington incarnation had promise. A roster laden with experienced seniors had stirred pre-season buzz that tagged the Knights as a leading contender to take home their first conference crown in more than 20 years. And as I watched them warm up, I had no reason to believe otherwise. They had size, they had shooters, and they had ball-handling savvy. And when they jumped out to a 7-0 lead, it looked like they would coast to victory.

But Somers proved to be far more resilient than the pre-season prognosticators had given them credit for. They slapped on a pesky full-court press that was just disruptive enough to throw the Knights off their rhythm.

Instead of patiently setting up their offense, the Ellington guards took to firing up three-pointers as soon as they broke free from the press. This played right into the Spartan’s hands, as it took them off the hook of having to play energy-sapping defense all over the court. Somers was therefore still fresh when it came to converting offensive opportunities of their own – which they proceeded to do with annoying frequency.

At the half the score was tied at 32. Somers then took a 49-47 lead into the fourth quarter. Seconds later, Ellington’s leading scorer and rebounder picked up his fourth foul on a questionable call (OK, I’m biased here), and that was the beginning of the end. Although he stayed in the game, his effectiveness was diminished. By the time he fouled out with less than two minutes left, Somers had built a somewhat comfortable cushion.

The Knights weren’t finished though, and a late scoring flurry brought them to within three points.

That was as close as it got though. Somers prevailed 70-66, thus putting a huge damper on Ellington’s chances of that elusive next NCCC championship.

As the timeless “good game, good game” ritual took place, my attention was drawn to the championship banners. They were everywhere, covering three walls of the gym and representing every sport imaginable. A quick scan yielded an unofficial count of two gajillion championships for a Somers High School that at one time had regularly battled just to avoid finishing in the NCCC cellar each year.

The centerpiece of it all was a section of wall that displayed nine Connecticut state boy’s championships. Nine! Basketball twice. Three in lacrosse. And as you read this, the Spartans are the reigning state champions in both wrestling and soccer.

The curiosity was killing me.

If this was Somers, what would Ellington’s gym look like? Almost from its inception in 1959, the Knights had been a Connecticut small school powerhouse, collecting conference championships like trading cards. And in the first 15 years of its existence, EHS had also won multiple state championships – in three different sports, no less.

In a move borne of either modesty or pragmatism, at one point the school’s administrators chose to eschew having a separate banner produced for each conference championship. Instead, a large banner for each sport in which the Knights fielded a team was affixed to the wall of the gym. Each time a new title was earned, a small rectangle simply displaying the year was attached to the bottom of the appropriate banner, creating a cascade of NCCC championship recognition.

As for the state championships – well they of course received separate individual banners.

I wondered aloud if that was still the case, and Rick – himself a multi-sport EHS letterman – was similarly intrigued. When he mentioned that the Ellington gym would most likely be in use for rec league play the next morning, plans for a field trip quickly materialized.

In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t gone. Some memories are best left alone.

There were banners all right. But they weren’t displayed with a ton of evident pride. Or organization. Conference championship banners were interspersed with state championship banners. And in some sports the “add a number” practice had been extended to state championships, even when there was just one. This is just plain wrong.

There was also the little matter of accuracy. At least one state soccer title that Rick and I knew of had somehow gone unrecognized. And most distressing of all was the banner dedicated to Ellington basketball players who had scored 1,000 points in their careers. It displayed just one name.

Now, I have nothing against Emily Savino (Class of 2009), and I’m sure she worked hard to earn each of those 1,417 points. But there’s at least one player that I’m positive had 1,000 points in his career – and his name wasn’t listed. And he still frequents the gym on a regular basis!

Thomas Wolfe, meet Court Harned. He probably knows what you meant.

Next Up:  Speedskating, Gymnastics, and Juggling (admit it – you’re intrigued)  

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