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Clippings: High school athletes can inspire

It was a busy weekend for us in the sports department here at the Addison Independent. Sandwiched between Friday and Saturday night NCAA playoff games (men’s basketball and women’s ice hockey) was a trip to Barre for the Division II boys’ basketball championship. It was not easy cutting a beautiful Saturday in half to make the long trek to Barre. It was even harder, as a photographer, to deal with the tight quarters and dim lights in Barre’s Civic Auditorium. But it is hard to argue with the storied tradition of Vermont state basketball championships played in the Aud. And it is harder still to argue with watching another talented, gritty Vergennes Union High School basketball team play its heart out.
I have seen VUHS put a lot of great athletes on the floor over the last 14 years that I have been photographing local sports. Probably the best high school basketball game I ever saw, back in the late ’90s, had the Commodores hosting county rival Middlebury. Late in the third quarter Middlebury was up by 17 points and during a break in the action a referee standing on the baseline leaned over to me and lamented the fact that the game had turned into a blowout. Some of the Commodores must have overheard, because they began to fight back. Hard.
The home crowd began to fight back, too. This was back in the school’s old gym where fans sitting in the front row had to keep their feet tucked in to avoid tripping players on the court and where the roar of the crowd could reach deafening levels. And boy did my ears start to ring in the fourth quarter as Vergennes began eating away at Middlebury’s lead. I think the rafters literally shook when Vergennes tied the game on a buzzer-beater and then won the game in overtime.
You could have harvested me for adrenaline by the time the game was over and I’m not even a basketball guy. I did have a poster of Dr. J on my dorm room wall in college, but being from Minnesota I am more of a hockey guy. In Minnesota, hockey is king. And while Vergennes was falling to MSJ in the final in Barre last Saturday, the Minnesota state high school hockey championships were being decided in dramatic fashion back in St. Paul.
I still follow the tournament every year. It’s just in my blood. If you think football is big in Texas or basketball big in Indiana, you should attend the hockey championships in Minnesota every March. Only you probably couldn’t get tickets. Most games fill the 19,000-seat Xcel Energy Center to capacity.
This year’s big story came from Benilde-St. Margaret’s. BSM is a private school in St. Louis Park near the Twin Cities. The school’s hockey team, which has been competitive through the years but was unseeded in this year’s tournament, knocked off the No. 2 team in the state in the sectional finals to advance to the big tournament. They drew perennial powerhouse Edina (seeded No. 4) in the quarterfinals, beat them, and then set an all-time tournament scoring record by beating Lakeville South 10-1 in the semifinals. Lakeville had reached the semis by knocking off the No. 1 team in the state, Duluth East. The little team that could squared off against Hill Murray in the finals and won the state title, 5-1. It was a sweet story about an underdog. But underdog stories are a dime a dozen. A special twist is that in the team’s championship win, one player, Grant Besse, scored three short-handed goals. Oh, and by the way, he also scored the team’s other two goals. One game, five goals.
But the really special twist is that Besse was not the big story. When the game ended the BSM players did not pile on Besse, but instead they looked into the arena’s upper deck for their teammate Jack Jablonski. Jablonski was watching the game from a wheelchair, his head bolted into a metal halo. You may have seen Jablonski’s story on the national news back in December when, in a game against Wayzata, he was checked into the boards and suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed.
Jablonski’s story captured the hearts of the hockey world and beyond. And while the BSM coach did not want to officially dedicate the rest of the season to Jablonski because he recognized that he would need more than just a few weeks of support, the team definitely rallied around “Jabs.” Jablonski rallied, too. He started making progress beyond his doctors’ expectations. More than anything he just wants to get back to school and be, as he said, “a regular kid.”
That is the beauty of high school sports. The teams are all made up of regular kids. Whether they are playing in front of 19,000 in St. Paul or 1,000 in Barre, they are still just our neighbors, our local kids. Most of them will never play professional sports, but they still take to our local fields and rinks and courts and show determination and grit and talent and commitment. And they still inspire.
So if you are looking for me this coming Saturday afternoon, we’ve got one more chance for a local championship, and I’ll be with the Mount Abraham girls’ basketball team, crammed in between a couple of other photographers and some cheerleaders on the baseline in Barre. 

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