It feels good to be back and today’s column is brought to you by our friends and partners at Core Physicians.
Core Physicians has over 15 locations on the seacoast and is a huge supporter of our coverage of high school sports.
New Hampshire high school basketball is about to drastically change after a vote of all Division I & II principals and athletic directors decided on cutting the end of the season by four weeks.
The last regular-season games for both the boys and the girls will be on Friday, February 5th.
The championship games are expected to be played on or before Saturday, February 20th. The plan is still to hold those games at UNH but I was told nothing has been confirmed yet and you may see the Division I & II girls’ championship games at SNHU.
It’s important to note that this recommendation and decision came from the principals and athletic directors. Jeff Collins and the NHIAA had nothing to do with the change other than to approve their decision.
Division I boys coaches, in an email sent by Exeter head coach Jeff Holmes, were unanimous in their agreement that the season should be cut by two weeks from its usual end in mid-March (the 2020 championship games were scheduled for March 21st).
They were then notified that their proposal was rejected and the season would be cut by four weeks.
For a frame of reference, most Division I boys teams had played 8 games as of February 5th this season. Now they will have all played 18, with the pre-season starting on November 30th, the Monday after Thanksgiving.
As you can imagine…this was not a popular decision. I reached to out to every coach in Division I (excluding Spaulding who is in the process of hiring a new head coach after the retirement of Tim Cronin) and spoke to over eighteen coaches about the effect the new schedule will have on not only their program but on basketball in New Hampshire.
“I was very surprised to learn the season was being cut by four weeks because we as a group of Division I coaches had recommended a two-week cut,” said Londonderry head coach Nate Stanton. “You would have thought that a unanimous recommendation from twenty-two coaches would have carried more weight.”
“I was ok with cutting back on the length of the season by two weeks,” agreed Salem head coach Rob McLaughlin. “I was in favor of February 19th being the last game of the season but cutting the season by four weeks seems drastic to me.”
The new season schedule puts Holiday Tournaments into jeopardy. Teams can still participate in them but with the season shortened and the games not counting in the standings, it will make playing three games a week more of a regular occurrence. “We as teachers and coaches stress academics all the time with our players,” said one Division I coach I spoke to. “And now we are putting them on a bus until 10 o’clock on a Monday night with another game less than 48 hours away? How is that what’s best for the kids?”
Jeff Baumann of Timberlane talked about the effect it will have on his program. “For us the extra practice time is vital, losing that affects our ability to come together as a team. The Holiday Tournaments were big for us as well because we have been able to win some games and build confidence for the remainder of the season. We’re now possibly losing that as well.”
“This feels like ‘roll the balls out and let’s go..hurry up and let’s get it over with’,” said Baumann. “ It feels like we are squeezing the season in.”
Longtime Merrimack Valley athletic director Kevin O’Brien was a proponent of the move, along with Bedford athletic director Corey Parker.
“This has been in the works for six to eight years,” O’Brien told me. “We didn’t just come up with this overnight. We did our homework and decided this was a move we wanted to make on a one-year pilot program. After the season we will see how it went and assess how we go forward.”
Bedford’s AD Corey Parker agreed. “I think the changes are a healthy step in the right direction as there was consensus that the season was too long in length. Like everything, we will assess at the end of the season and seek feedback from the teams and coaches to see how it went. “
O’Brien pointed to a decrease in the number of players playing basketball due to the length of the season as one of the reasons for the initiative. “We noticed a tremendous decline in numbers, especially on the girls’ side, from players who don’t want to commit to a sport from November to March. We have been losing a lot of 3-sport athletes and a lot of parents have not been happy with the season running through both the holiday and February vacation.”
“I agree that it is a pretty aggressive change but it’s a one-year adjustment that we can evaluate at the end of the season.”
Out of the 18 coaches I spoke to only one, Merrimack’s Tim Goodridge, told me that his numbers have declined. Though to be fair I did not speak to any girls’ coaches for this piece.
By a wide margin, coaches were against the new schedule and drastic change.
“We all agreed that the season needed to be shortened from the mid-March end date,” said Winnacunnet head coach Jay McKenna. “But cutting it by four weeks seems excessive. There will be a lot less time for skill development, your cutting up to 22 practices and they are playing a full 18 game schedule in the time they would normally play 8. How is this what’s best for the kids?”
“You are making it a lot harder to be a productive student-athlete,” said Trinity head coach Keith Bike. “With the prep schools around us, we should be focused on keeping our best players in New Hampshire playing for their high school. Ending the regular season on February 5th may entice a parent, who wasn’t previously considering prep school, to look into a season that goes a full month longer.”
“The NCAA shortened the AAU season so that more college coaches would go to high school games,” said Bike. “Now you’ll have AAU try-outs during February vacation and you’ve just extended their season from mid-February to June.”
Fellow coaches agreed. “You’ve empowered AAU programs and cut back on the NHIAA season,” said Portsmouth head coach John Mulvey. “That concerns me as well as having less time to work with our players. Our normal schedule was Wednesday’s we went over what we did wrong in Tuesday’s game and on Thursday we worked on skill development followed by game prep for our next opponent. With a three games a week schedule that changes your practice plans completely. You won’t have time for anything but game prep and the players ultimately suffer for that.”
O’Brien acknowledges coaches will have to adjust. “This was voted on by 100% of the principals and athletic directors. We rarely get 100% participation but we did in this case and the majority vote was for a four week cut off the end of the season.”
“Coaches adjust, its part of any coaches job. They’ll adjust to this change as well.”
Many of the coaches I spoke to brought up the impact injuries will have on teams with the shortened schedule.
“One of my concerns is what happens when you lose a key player to a high ankle sprain?” said Manchester Memorial head coach Danny Bryson. “That would normally impact you for three or four games. Now you’re talking maybe half the season.”
Bryson is right. Last season Exeter all-state forward Jacob Gibbons suffered a back injury in the preseason, causing him to miss their first four games of the season before returning on January 17th against Spaulding.
Under the new schedule. Gibbons would likely miss up to 11 games, as a January 17th return would be two and a half weeks before the end of the regular season.
“You have kids now who could miss out on all-state or scoring 1,000 career points because of an injury that would normally cost them four games,” said Bryson.
Another coach asked how officiating would be effected. “It’s not a secret that a lot of our officials are older. Now we are asking them to do three to four games a week? Does that affect the level of the officiating overall?”
Bishop Guertin head coach John Fisher saw positives in the move to a condensed schedule. “It’s about the kids and kids want to play more games and have a good experience while playing,” said Fisher. “Trust me I want to win as much as anything but it is also responsible to look at the bigger picture and a shortened season for these kids may benefit them.”
Along with the change will be no more semifinal games at UNH.
The plan now is to hold the final fours at bigger high schools like Pinkerton or Exeter.
“We have a lot of great tradition in the state of New Hampshire and by pulling the final fours away from college campuses like UNH I think you’re robbing a lot of these kids of that tradition, all for the sake of having February vacation week off?” said Alvirne head coach Marty Edwards.
The possible loss of Holiday Tournaments (O’Brien stressed there is no move to eliminate them) was another unpopular part of the new schedule. “All of us look forward to the Holiday Tournaments. It’s an opportunity for players who might not get a lot of minutes to prove themselves and get more playing time,” said Merrimack head coach Tim Goodridge. “I’ve already told my AD (Mike Soucy) that we want to keep playing in Nashua over the holidays. It’s a really good experience for the kids.”
Goodridge talked about the changes he’s seen in 20-plus years of coaching. “Our numbers have been way down and I acknowledge that the season is awfully long. To cut it by the additional two weeks after we all supported two weeks total surprises me. Even just five to ten years ago you’d never even discuss cutting the season so more players could go on February vacation but that seems to be where we are today.”
Other coaches said they will be in favor of not participating in holiday tournaments and will use the holiday to get games in. “We will use it as an opportunity to get ahead in the schedule,” said Keene head coach Kevin Ritter. “My concern is snow dates. Games inevitably have to be rescheduled due to winter storms and now you’re condensing the schedule and taxing your players even more. I do think a change was needed and I see it in a glass-half-full way. We start the season a week earlier and I’m optimistic we can get the games in by February 5th.”
Lebanon head coach Kieth Matte, one of the longest-tenured coaches in Division II talked about the possible need to overhaul your entire schedule. “I’m in agreement with the Division I coaches, I’m opposed to this change. You have far less practice time (it is estimated that 20 practices would be cut in the move) and you’re asking the players to play more frequently with less recovery time. We may have to consider playing schools north of Concord so travel is less of a tax on the players.”
“I don’t see how anyone could look you in the eye and tell you this is what’s best for basketball in New Hampshire.”
News and notes
Our team, like everyone else, is taking it week by week as far as holding our NHsportspage senior and underclassman team’s event against BABC (who we have been in touch with throughout this) as well as our annual coverage of the CHaD all-star football game.
We’re planning as if we will be covering both football and volleyball in the fall. In fact, we have brought on four new team members for our expanded coverage and we’ll be announcing those additions soon.
In other news………
The podcast will be a look at the state of New Hampshire basketball and our plan is to have former players and coaches from around the state on the show. Marshall’s contact list includes quite a few celebrities and our plan is to talk hoop with some of the greats.
We are holding a watch party with the fine people of Groveton and the Oyster River crew this summer with the specials all to be released one at a time in August.
Look for upcoming clips from our other two games featured: Pelham’s semifinal win over Campbell in the 2015 Division III semifinals and Dover’s upset of Exeter in the 2018 Division I semifinals.
30-plus players/coaches will be golfing in Gorham (known to most as the hometown of Lance ‘Caged Heat’ Legere) and it’s all about catching up with our coaching friends while supporting the many student programs at WMCC.
If you’d like to get in shoot me an email at email@example.com and if you’re still mad at me because your kid didn’t make our all-state teams please call into the Jack Heath Radio Show and ask for show producer Justin McIsaac.
We can’t wait to get back to work and hope to be covering the kids again soon!