Karl Lindholm: A century of hoop at Middlebury College

Basketball, unlike our other major sports, has an actual creation story: our Canadian friend, Dr. James Naismith, really did invent basketball in the gym at the Springfield (Mass.) YMCA in 1891.
Only 27 years after Naismith nailed those peach baskets up in the Y, Middlebury College had a basketball team and an intercollegiate schedule.
In that inaugural season, 1917-18, the Middlebury team was undefeated, playing six games, two each against UVM, Norwich, and Saint Michael’s, outscoring their state rivals, 200-83.
In Middlebury’s first intercollegiate basketball game in February 1918, the Panthers defeated Norwich 49-13.
The Campus newspaper reported: “The Blue and White showed a snappy brand of passing and time after time worked the ball under the Cadets’ basket where Heath and Miske dropped it in.” (Win Heath and George Miske each had seven baskets.)
The game was played in two 20-minute halves, then as now. The Cadets managed only five goals.
The coach of that team was Simeon “Simmie” Murch, one of the first fulltime coaches at the College, primarily a baseball coach, but pressed into action to lead the basketball team just that first year.
Murch was a colorful character, a giant for his time at 6’4” 225 pounds, who in his four years compiled the highest winning percentage in baseball team history in that sport — .639 (37-21).
He was a much beloved coach, “genial and big-hearted.“ After his four years at Middlebury, he spent 16 years at Phillips Exeter. There too he was much beloved: “All of us knew the integrity of Sim, . . . (but) few of us realized the extent of his goodness,” an Exeter faculty minute declared upon his death at 58.
So this year is basketball’s centennial at Middlebury — a hundred years of hoop, over 2000 games: 933 wins and 1,100 losses, a .458 winning percentage.
The era of greatest glory in ten decades of basketball at Middlebury is right now!
In the past decade, under Coach Jeff Brown, Middlebury has become a national power, with over 20 wins a season (226-54, 790 percent), four NESCAC championships, eight NCAA tournament appearances (13 wins, so far), a Final Four appearance in 2011, three All-American players (Ben Rudin ’09, Ryan Sharry ’12, and Matt St. Amour ’17).
Over 400 colleges play basketball in Division 3, and last year, Middlebury was ranked third in the country at the end of the season. Led by its dynamic backcourt of Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown, the Panthers finished 27-4 and won three of four games in the NCAA tournament, all home games before big enthusiastic crowds.
Middlebury has become a basketball town, here in the heart of ski country. This season, the Panthers led the conference in attendance as they have throughout the decade, averaging over 750 spectators at home games overall, and 950 at NESCAC games.
This year’s team is 19-6 with at least one more game to play. The Panthers were ranked as high as 5th nationally before dropping its last three games against tough NESCAC opponents.
Now ranked 18th, Middlebury will take on Lebanon Valley College (PA) at Eastern Connecticut College in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday, hoping to make another deep run in the tournament. A win Friday earns the Panthers a game on Saturday against the winner of the game between Eastern Connecticut and Johnson and Wales.
At the other end of the won-loss spectrum was the 1960s, the nadir of Middlebury basketball, the era when I played. (Cause and effect? Absolutely.)
From 1960-69, Middlebury won only 33 games in the whole decade. In my senior year, we were 1-24 with a 14-point win over Brandeis our only victory (Brandeis was coached by Celtic great KC Jones).
We weren’t that bad, as I will tell you at the drop of a hat. We lost to the University of Vermont, up there, by five points and then excruciatingly at home by just one point. We had a dynamic young coach Gerry Alaimo who taught us the game and worked us hard.
After Gerry righted the ship and departed for Brown, his alma mater, Middlebury was at the very least competitive for the next four decades: Tom Lawson (1970-78) won nearly 60 percent of his games — and Russ Reilly (1978-97) was 40 percent against the toughest schedule of teams he could put together every year (UVM, Dartmouth, St. Michaels).
An era of great distinction was the five years Tony Lupien was the coach, 1951-56. His teams won nearly two-thirds of their games against all-comers regardless of size (Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Boston University, Universities of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont).
Tony had three magnificent players: Sonny Dennis — fourth in all-time scoring with 1,554 points; Tom Hart — the leading rebounder in the history of college basketball (who also scored 1,005 points in three years of play); and Charlie Sykes (1023 points) — a silky smooth forward. Dennis and Hart are in Middlebury’s four year-old Athletic Hall of Fame.
My all-time favorite Middlebury team is that 1955 squad with Dennis, Hart and Sykes joined by backcourt mates Zip Rausa and John Hoops (that’s right, Johnny Hoops). How I would love to be able to travel back in time to watch some of their epic games.
I’ve seen a lot of Middlebury teams and games in its first century of basketball. I’m looking forward to many more in the second. 

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