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Florida Trip
Very superstitious: Harper, Donovan and Perry after our philosophical breakfast discussion

Florida Travelogue - Day Four: "24 Hours 'Till Gameday"

Thursday, January 2, 2003

Breakfast is my favorite meal during the trip. Aside from fueling up, it’s a good time to strike up conversations and recap events. This morning Coach Harp and I venture to the dining room just before breakfast is over. On the way, Coach Buelow informs us that five inches of snow have fallen in Massachusetts, which means Northampton High School, where Coach Harp teaches, has declared a snow-day. Meanwhile, it’s 75 degrees with a light breeze in Lakeland. All is right with the world.

I join Frank Perry, Adam Harper, Don Quinn and John Donovan in the dining room. Frank announces that he had a dream last night involving mistletoe, but that’s all he’ll reveal. A few pancakes later the conversation turns to an interesting subject - superstitions. Adam says he’s extremely superstitious. He dresses from left to right, like reading a book, before every game. Left sock on first, then right sock. Left leg through the shorts, then right leg. Left arm through his jersey, then right arm. You get the idea. He also circles the court the same way before every game - counterclockwise around its pulp. Frankie says that for him the jersey number is the thing. He’s worn the same digit since Day-One. Frank’s a two-sport standout at Amherst, having earned All-Conference honors for three straight seasons on the soccer team. His traditional number four graces both jerseys, soccer and basketball, and has since his days at Loomis Chaffee. His immediate pre-game ritual is that he won’t lace up his soccer cleats, or hoop sneaks, until the last possible minute. It creates a sense of urgency in his psyche that carries over into the way he plays each sport, with a sense of urgency.

The subject of superstitions interests me. My theory is that in order to be successful in sports you need repetition. If you perform a task over and over again, you naturally become better at it. Superstitions, like practice, involve repetition - performing the same task over and over again. If a player has a great game while wearing his socks a certain way, he might surmise that if he puts his socks on the same way before his next game, he’ll play well again. The two - practice and superstitions - go hand-in-hand.

Potentially diffusing my theory, Donovan explains that he goes out of his way to avoid superstition. He’ll dress in a number of different ways before games. He doesn’t care what number covers his back as long as the jersey fits. Who cares what pre-game routine he follows as long as he’s ready to play?

But I say to Donovan that, in fact, his insistence on avoiding superstition is a superstition in itself. Because he insists on a different routine before every game, he’d be screwed up if he did otherwise, just like Harper would be messed up if he dressed from right to left rather than left to right. In his attempt to avoid superstition, he’s as knee-deep in ritual as anyone else.

After breakfast I meet up with Coach Hixon for another brisk run to Lakeland Christian School before this afternoon’s practice. I fill him in on the morning’s debate and ask for his take. He likes my theory. It turns out that coach has his superstitions as well. For instance, two seasons ago in a game at Bates, Amherst trailed at halftime when Coach happened upon a stray medallion, which he scooped up and slid into the pocket of his blazer. The team rebounded to win the game and the medallion has stayed with him ever since.

Today’s practice is spirited. The immediacy of tomorrow’s game seems to ignite the players’ resolve. Three players join me on the bench - Pat Fitzsimons (sore hamstring), Steve Zieja (knee pain) and Andrew Schiel (slight ankle sprain). There isn’t much for the “walking wounded” to do but ice their ailments and chirp at teammates. Harper is feeling particularly frisky today, dunking on a trio of consecutive trips downcourt. On his fourth trek past the bench, Fitzsimons - the team’s Dean of the Dunk - asks Harper, “You got anything else for me?” Responding to the challenge, Harper draws ooohs and aahs with a one-handed, 180-degree tomahawk dunk the next time he touches the ball. He wheels around to gauge Fitzsimons’ reaction, only “Fitzy” has his back to the floor, stretching his tender hammy. Harper throws up his hands in mock disgust.

After warmups Coach Hixon lays down the scouting report for tomorrow’s game. He knows Webber International’s offensive tendencies probably better then their own coaches do. The knowledge reassures the players.

The afternoon’s 20-minute scrimmage is a hard-fought affair. Fitzsimons and Zieja keep a report card on the players, awarding plusses for rebounds, buckets, assists and blocks, and minuses for turnovers, poor shot selection and lacking defense. Don Quinn comes out on top with a plus six, followed closely by Perry, Harper, Ray Corrigan, John Bedford and Neil Somers, who play particularly hard.

Tonight we dine at a nearby country club as guests of our unofficial host, Dr. Raul Lopez ’75. The club is exquisite, with perfectly manicured grounds, Christmas lights, flowing fountains and a spacious clubhouse. The food is a highlight of the trip - shrimp, filet mignon, twice-baked potatoes, steamed broccoli - a training meal fit for royalty. Afterwards Dr. Lopez says a few words, briefly reminiscing about his days at Amherst. He adds that it’s been a treat watching the team practice and interact. He also extols the value of an Amherst education, citing his own undergraduate experiences. His talk ends with a rousing ovation and everyone personally thanks him.

Tomorrow, Day 5, is Gameday. With full stomachs and good feelings, breakfast is only 10 hours away.

-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director