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Florida Trip
Russell Lee: "Youuuuuu, you got what I nee-eed..."

Florida Travelogue - Day Three: "My Legs Feel Like Bowling Balls"

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Breakfast in the hotel dining room is crowded, packed with leftover New Year’s Eve revelers from the night before. By the looks of many of them, a good time was had last night. The wealth of people means a lack of silverware, and I end up eating my eggs and pancakes with a slightly used spoon. No matter. I was so hungry I would’ve used chopsticks.

Russell Lee sits at my table for a bit, along with Coaches Flockerzi and Harp, and extols the virtues of techno music and old-school rapper Biz Markie (you may know his one and only hit, sing it if you know the words: “Youuuuuu, you got what I nee-eed. But you say he’s just a friend. But you say he’s just a friend. Oh baby youuuuuuuuu…”). Speaking of rappers, Coach Flockerzi tells the story of an important game last season against Little Three rival Wesleyan University, before which everyone on the team, coaches and players, was a bit uptight. During warmups, the 70’s disco hit “Rappers’ Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang blasted over the P.A. system, and Coach Hixon knew every word. The tightness gave way instantly.

Frank Perry’s been sick since the first day of the trip, the victim of a disagreeable meal at one of the countless chain restaurants near our hotel. He looks better today, even trying his hand (and stomach) at a plate of eggs, which is good news. He spent much of yesterday’s practice with his head in his hands, face covered by the hood of his sweatshirt.

Ray Corrigan and I shoot the breeze about the Giants’ chances in the NFL playoffs - two New Yorkers talking football amongst a cadre of Patriots backers. The Giants play San Francisco on Sunday. Too bad freshman John Casnocha, a San Francisco native, isn’t around. It might be fun to stir a football debate between he and Corrigan, who takes his Queens, N.Y. bravado and sharp wit into every argument.

Practice is set for 12:30 p.m. Coach Hixon and I decide to run the three miles to Lakeland Christian School rather than ride in the vans. Coach calls our runs LSD (long slow distance) but keeping pace is struggle. My ego keeps me moving. On the way I ask a lot of questions. I’m curious about this year’s team, which I think is extremely talented, but not at the expense of its chemistry. Coach Hixon says it’s one of the most talented groups he’s had in his 26 seasons at Amherst. There are a lot of A-plusses and a few A-minuses, he continues. The A-plusses will win a lot of games but improving the A-minuses could dictate how far the season goes. The team’s chemistry, the way the players interact and support one another, is one of its most encouraging attributes. This crew seems to push and have fun with each other. On a team of 17 players, playing time can sometimes be an issue and a distraction. Luckily, some of its role players are among its most mature and team-oriented.

About a mile from Lakeland Christian, in a residential neighborhood, we approach a boy on a shiny new bike. “Wow - hey buddy that’s a great bike,” Coach says. “Is that new?”

“Yes,” the boy beams with toothy grin that matches his prize bike’s sparkling finish.

My legs are killing me and I desperately search for any sign of the school. Finally, above a row of palm trees, I spot the lights that hover over the school’s adjoining soccer field. I feel like Columbus discovering the New World.

Lakeland Christian’s varsity and jayvee hoop teams are practicing when we arrive. They seem to pick up the pace a bit when we enter the gym. I suddenly feel important and try to look the part. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a high school team in action. It has a vastly different look and cadence than college ball.

Our players eventually arrive and the high school practice really picks up. When their session finishes many of the Lakeland Christian kids hang around to watch their college counterparts run through warmup drills. They’re in awe, especially when the afternoon’s first dunk rattles the backboard.

A few of the players are slowed by minor ailments. Steve Zieja sits out much of the practice with pain in both knees. One of the team’s hardest workers, it’s difficult for him to watch from the sideline, and he eventually takes the floor during the afternoon scrimmage. Pat Fitzsimons also sits with a tender hamstring. His legs are ultra-important to his game, being a 6’ 8” post player who routinely beats smaller players up and down the floor, and the staff takes no chances. Andrew Schiel tweaks an ankle later in the practice and suddenly athletic trainer Stan Zieja is the busiest man in the gym.

During the scrimmage Coach Hixon implores the players to recognize the hot shooter on the floor. If he’s on your side get him the ball, he says. If he’s an opponent, know where he is and play him a little tighter on the perimeter.

After practice I ask in jest if Coach Hixon wants to run back to the hotel. Like a good straight man he says “Yes,” to which I reply, “Well then have a nice run.” My legs feel like two bowling balls.

At the hotel I grab a quick meal with Coach Harp and treat myself to a whirlpool. We later join eight or nine players and Coach Flockerzi for a trip to the movies - Gangs of New York - the bloodiest, most violent flick any of us have ever seen. Luke (Flockerzi) sets a new world record for the most self-serve melted butter ever pumped into a bag of popcorn. We take up nearly three rows in the theater and almost all of us are wearing gray T-shirts. I joke that with our matching garb we look like one of the gangs on the big screen. Call us the Gangs of Amherst.

On the way home Zieja leads a discussion examining possible alternative endings for the movie, which leads to a philosophical question from Coach Harp: “Which Hollywood director most epitomizes New York City? Spike Lee, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese?” I surmise that the only answer is Spike Lee because he’s been to more New York Knicks games than Allen and Scorsese combined. How can you argue with that?

-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director