Gregory Dennis: Hoop and snow dreams mingle

It’s been another lousy year to be an Eastern skier. And another great year to be a fan of Middlebury College men’s basketball.
There’s little mystery about what’s happening to Vermont skiing. It used to be we’d have a lot of 30-degree days with snow. Now we have a lot of 35-degree days with rain.
Blame it on climate change. And expect it to get worse over time.
Back in the last century, we could always count on a January thaw of a couple days.
These days, we skiers are glad when the snowy weather persists for more than two weeks at a time.
Add to that the unseasonal eruptions of freakishly warm weather over the past two winters — and you’ve got the recipe for a lot of skiers beginning to think about their golf games.
Most Vermont ski areas get by only because they have huge snowmaking systems, so at least places like Sugarbush and the Snow Bowl kept the lifts running. Mad River Glen, which relies on natural snow, had to shut down for several days last month.
Last week’s blizzard (I love that word “blizzard”) brought some welcome relief from a February filed with south winds and 65 degree days.
It was a delight to see so many friends at the Snow Bowl last Saturday, enjoying the fruits of a monster storm and sparkling March sunshine.
But really, this won’t go down as a memorably good season.
My journal reminds me that there were some fun days in December, before the rains and subsequent cold laid down a persistent layer of ice. We skied Stowe’s Front Four obsessively in mid-December, knowing it might not last. And of course it didn’t, with the rain arriving a week before Christmas.
Making lemonade out of lemons, several friends and I amped up our love of college sports.
I know I’m supposed to say something politically correct here about women’s sports teams. And indeed, the women’s basketball team at the college had a good year. The women’s hockey team had another stellar season, making it to the NCAA’s before falling to Norwich in a heartbreaker.
But I’ll confess that my tastes run to watching men’s sports.
With the college men’s hockey team suffering through a historically bad season, the crowds just grew larger every game for the men’s basketball team.
Head coach Jeff Brown (who won both NESCAC and regional coach-of-the-year honors) has, along with assistants Kyle Dudley, Russ Reilly and Rob Alberts, been delivering good basketball to Pepin gym for years now.
This season was not only no exception, it was exceptional.
Fueled by the fearless guards Jake Brown and Matt St. Amour — the league-leading scorer who sparked rousing “MVP” chants with every three-pointer — the Panthers won 14 straight games.
As snowy fields turned to brown and ski plans melted, C. and I took to building our weekend plans around basketball games.
What a ride it was. It seemed the team could do little wrong, a smothering defense sparking fast breaks and open threes from St. Amour, Brown, Jack Daly and freshman phenom Matt Folger.
When the NESCAC playoffs loomed and there was still no snow, we took an entire weekend to travel to Tufts to see the team play.
There the Panthers were greeted by a huge contingent of Middlebury fans who easily drowned out the small coterie of other out-of-towners.
The Panthers endured yet another hackathon from Trinity, to play for the league crown against a Williams team that had previously beaten Middlebury by 24 points.
Proving once again that college sports is wonderfully unpredictable, the Panthers routed Williams by 22 points in a game where everything went right.
It wasn’t the same as skiing powder, but it made for a happy weekend.
March brought more happiness (did I mention there was a blizzard?) and three Middlebury victories in the NCAA tournament.
The team had earned the right to play at home as they raced into the Elite Eight. So rather than travel for the games, we could eat at Flatbread and grab our preferred seats behind the Middlebury bench as the teams warmed up.
Only a Williams squad playing at its very best — using a seemingly endless bench and an enormously tall front court — brought the Middlebury season to an end.
Williams did just enough to slow down St. Amour and Brown, held off a furious last-minute rush, and emerged from Pepin with a four-point victory.
I’m sure the Middlebury team will be replaying that game in their heads for years to come — I still recall moments from my high school games nearly 50 years later — but they have every reason to be proud of their season. Few of us expected this team to go so far after losing a talented starter who transferred early in the season.
Playing deep into the NCAA tournament was icing on the cake. And it’s got us already looking to next year’s prospects.
Without live basketball to consume the weekends, we more rabid fans will have to settle for the big-school variety of March Madness. But that tournament feels increasingly like an ad-soaked pro-ball tryout.
And there’s always spring skiing to keep some of us on the slopes and out of trouble.
I ended last ski season at Sugarbush by careening down Stein’s Run three straight times to end a sunny mid-April day.
Who knows? A bit more fresh snow and we might even be making last runs this year in early May.
Just in time for the best of the NBA playoffs.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis. 

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