Given the significant size difference in New Hampshire high schools, it makes sense that sports teams would be separated into divisions by size, more or less. Thus 1,400-student Keene High School isn’t regularly pitted against neighboring Hinsdale High, which has roughly a tenth as many potential athletes from which to choose.
But — this odd-duck COVID-imperiled winter season aside — there has been one venue for such matchups over the years, at least in local basketball.
Since 1997, Keene State College has played host to a holiday basketball tournament that’s been open to all area high schools, and many others.
Phil Hebert, a former basketball coach at Keene High and Keene State, started the tournament as a fundraiser for the Keene State basketball boosters, and has run it every year since — at least until a global pandemic thwarted this past December’s version.
And now, in part because of that continuing threat, but also due to N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association scheduling, Keene State says it can’t resume the fan favorite next winter.
The NHIAA has moved the 2021-22 winter sports season up several weeks, placing the start smack in the middle of the holiday break, when the normally preseason event would be taking place.
Because of its own teams’ schedules, Keene State can’t free up the gym earlier to reschedule. Unless another venue can be found, the annual holiday tournament may become just the latest victim of the pandemic.
That would certainly be a shame. Besides raising money for KSC athletics, the tournament has provided a great lead-in for local high school programs to see what they’re made of before the “real” games start.
For years, youth basketball organization Zero Gravity was the prime sponsor, but in 2019, Noyes Volkswagen, already a sponsor, took the helm. But many locals have always thought of it as the Keene State holiday tournament in any case.
Over the years, teams from throughout the Granite State have competed, and from every New England state except Connecticut. Add New York and New Jersey, too. The farthest-flung entrants were apparent ringers Coral Springs (Fla.) Charter School, which went undefeated in winning the Red Division crown in 2007, and Newport Harbor, Calif., which did the same in 2006.
Though it’s included up to two dozen teams some years in three divisions, the local schools have been the mainstays, and almost all have had their moments.
Conant’s teams, both boys and girls, have won multiple championships. So have Keene’s. Even Keene’s JV boys team has won a title, taking the Blue Division in 2008. The Fall Mountain girls have won twice.
Along the way, some memorable moments have included 2013, when Hinsdale’s girls ran through Division I Keene and topped Fall Mountain in double overtime to capture their only crown.
Keene’s boys throttled two-time defending champ Smithfield, R.I., in 2016’s final, 60-42, for their second overall title.
The ConVal boys took the White Division title with a last-second free throw, 60-59, over Murdock, Mass., in 2017.
Oddly, this past season, local teams did play each other across divisions, as pandemic concerns limited competition largely to regional opponents. Next fall, we’d expect, the usual separations will resume. Teams will schedule preseason scrimmages, perhaps with area rivals. But it won’t be the same. And the Christmas break will be a little less hectic, and a little less special, perhaps, for local basketball fans.