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Florida Trip
Make yourself at home: The basketball loving squirrel

Florida Travelogue - Day Five: "Tonight's the Night"

Friday, January 3, 2003

Breakfast, followed by a brief shootaround at Lakeland Christian School and then off to the game - that’s the plan for today. Most of the players arrive early at breakfast and the conversation is more focused than usual. The guys wonder if Pat Fitzsimons (and his sore hamstring) will play. They wonder who will start in his place if he doesn’t. They wonder how good tonight’s opponent, Webber International, is. They wonder if Webber will show up with any new players and if their 7-foot-1 center is any good.

In the dining room, between trips to the pancake stack, I meet a man named Joe Louis. He tells me he was a professional baseball scout for 60 years and has rubbed elbows with non other than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Our server informs me that Mr. Louis comes to Lakeland, the spring training home of the Detroit Tigers, every year. I pay my respects.

After breakfast Coach Hixon and I run the three miles to Lakeland Christian School. We’re proud of ourselves because it’s the fourth consecutive afternoon we’ve covered the mileage. At the gym we find Lakeland Christian’s coaches setting up for an upcoming high school game, pulling out bleachers, setting up benches, cleaning floor mats. We’re glad to lend a hand.

The players arrive shortly thereafter in sweats and T-shirts, traditional shootaround garb, and do just that - shoot around. Adam Harper leads a game of H-O-R-S-E against all comers, first routing Suli Jenkins and Frank Perry and then handling Steve Zieja. He hits shots from everywhere - beyond the sideline, just inside half court, double-pump reverse layups, you name it.

Coach Hixon calls the players together at midcourt and reviews the scouting report for tonight. Before every game he distributes a meticulously compiled handwritten sheet complete with profiles of opposing players, offensive and defensive tendencies, diagrams of plays they might run, anything that might give the team an edge. He says that Webber International has two or three players that are as quick as any we’ll face this year, and to not be surprised if the pace is extremely fast at the start of the game. He also says that Webber’s 7-foot-1 center will most likely post up down low and shoot over the top of the defense, and that we’ll counter with our tallest available player, whoever that may be.

It’s a 40-minute van ride to Babson Park, Fla. and the Webber International Campus. Webber International is actually a sister school to Babson College in Babson Park, Mass., and was founded in 1927. Along the way it becomes apparent that Babson Park, Fla. is more or less in the middle of nowhere. We pass cows, bulls, goats and endless acres of oranges groves until the Webber International campus materializes on the shores of a crystal clear lake. It looks just like you’d think a small, rural Florida college might - palm trees, pastel colored stucco buildings, green playing fields, exotic birds.

The gym is small but serviceable with bleachers on both sides and large basketballs painted on both ends of the floor. A women’s game is underway and there’s a lot of time left on the clock. We have about an hour and a half to kill. While scouting the gym I notice that an agile, gray squirrel has made the place his home. He cris-crosses the ceiling rafters at will, back and forth, as if to say “catch me if you can.” Webber International’s athletic director jokes that they should change their nickname from the Warriors to the Fighting Squirrels. A squirrel trap sits atop a storage bin behind the visitors’ bench.

As gametime approaches both teams warm up and an old friend materializes - Mike Proctor ’02, who played four years of basketball at Amherst before graduating last spring. He has since joined the U.S. Marines and his former teammates are happy to see him. He looks like he’s shed some weight and says he hopes to enroll in flight school soon. Mike badgers the referees from the bleachers for the next 90 minutes.

With the game underway Coach Hixon’s scouting report proves accurate. Webber International is fast and athletic and the game begins at a frenzied pace. We fall behind early, trail by four at the half and never recover. Tim Jones starts in Fitzsimons’ place and plays well, but the officiating appears to be a bit one-sided. Webber International attempts 18 more free throws than Amherst and enjoys a similar advantage in foul calls, making a road win in a place like Babson Park a tall order.

After the game, which is Amherst’s first loss after a 7-0 start, everyone’s disappointed. Players telephone their parents to break the bad news, adding that we should’ve won by 30. The team hadn’t played a game in 24 days and the rust was apparent, but a loss is a loss. Still, 7-1 ain’t a bad start to the season, and a chance to start a new winning streak is right around the corner - Monday, in fact.

Just one more full day in Florida. With their business here seemingly concluded, the players look forward to returning to Amherst, even though the news has circulated that eight inches of snow (and counting) have fallen in Western Mass.

-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director