An ode to the Cage, and missing games this year

  • Pioneer's Garrett Cote (13) hits a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the 2018 WMass Division IV semifinal against Drury at UMass’ Curry Hicks Cage. Cote, now a Recorder intern, discusses that memory, as well as Cage thoughts from area coaches, in a piece for the newspaper. Staff FILE PHOTO/Dan Little

Staff Intern
Published: 3/2/2021 5:31:39 PM
Modified: 3/2/2021 5:43:35 PM
[Editor’s Note: Recorder intern Garrett Cote writes about the history of Western Mass. tournaments at the Curry Hicks Cage in Amherst, a topic many have been discussing since the MIAA voted to abandon sectional tournaments and shift to a statewide postseason beginning next year. There is considerable momentum in Western Mass. circles that some form of sectional tournament may return, but there are no current plans to play games again at the Cage.]

Everybody knows it’s time for playoff basketball when walking through the doors of the Curry Hicks Cage on the campus of UMass.

Fans purchase their tickets at the ticket booth directly as they walk in, grab their popcorn and drinks at the concession stand, and nestle their way into the noisy and uncomfortably tight quarters of the Cage. Under normal circumstances, this week would house the best basketball Western Mass. has to offer.

Pandemic aside, this March would have officially marked the last time Western Mass. tournaments were contested in the traditional model. As it currently stands, players and coaches will no longer be competing for Western Mass. titles at the Cage, as the MIAA made the decision to move from sectional tournaments to a statewide tournament during their general assembly meeting in 2020.

As March gets underway, players and coaches are left with mixed feelings that they were unable to maximize their last opportunity to play at UMass and compete for a championship inside of the Cage.

Scott Thayer, one of the most accomplished coaches in Western Mass. history after being part of four WMass and two state titles, said he was crushed when hearing the news of the Cage no longer being a potential site for postseason basketball.

“Disappointment and frustration,” recalled Thayer. After pondering his feelings he continued, “when you get into February, you’re anxious for the seedings to come out to see where you lie. From there everyone’s set goal is to get to the Cage and have the opportunity to play for a title. In Western Massachusetts, there simply is no better spot for the playoffs. When you pack 2-3,000 people in there, it feels like a college atmosphere.”

Thayer said he was looking forward to this postseason, as his team navigated the abbreviated Franklin County League slate with just one loss.

While thinking about present-day postseason basketball is nice, Thayer also likes to recall past memories the Cage has brought him — both good and bad.

“In 2000, when I was coaching at Greenfield, we had a great team and we rolled through the entire postseason, and ultimately came up a little short in the state finals,” he began. “But we came back the next year, lost a lot of guys from the year before, and we made it right back to the Western Mass. finals.

“This is one I think about a lot,” he continued. “Timmy Burns was trapped on the sideline with not much time left, and as I go to call a timeout, he breaks the trap and goes in for a layup. Unfortunately, the officials gave me the timeout directly after he broke the trap, and they nullified the basket. We end up getting our last shot blocked, and we lose by one.”

Moments like that are what every basketball player dreams of. Playing at a historical venue in a tight game in the fourth quarter, the sectional championship on the line, one could not ask for a better storyline. Coaches will tell you that losing a game at the Cage in that fashion is preferred rather than not having the opportunity to play at the Cage at all.

Greenfield High School girls varsity coach John Hickey emulated that exact notion, saying simply having the opportunity to participate in a playoff game at the Cage is a blessing.

“It’s going to be missed for sure,” Hickey declared. “Whether you’re a player or a coach, it’s the same feeling of excitement, nerves, and joy. To be able to give your players an opportunity to play at a place like the Cage is something you definitely want to let them soak in and experience. Obviously the goal is to win a championship, but just getting to the Cage is an accomplishment itself.”

Hickey has had a ton of recent success, as his Greenfield girls squad has made several trips to Amherst in the past decade and played in the Western Mass. finals two years ago. Hickey went on to emphasize that the Cage has been buoyed due to its past history.

“The atmosphere, playing on a former collegiate facility, the history of the great players that have played on the court, it all makes it that much more special,” Hickey said. “There are so many more people watching, it’s a much bigger place, and there is a shared excitement in the air between the players and fans.”

Considering history at the Cage may no longer be built upon, Mahar boys head coach Chad Softic, who directed his 2012 team to a Division 2 state title, made his pitch to continue the legacy that has been built for so many years.

“I would give up the right to play in the statewide tournament to have the opportunity to keep the Western Mass. landscape the way it is,” Softic began. “We can stay in the PVIAC, we would still have the Berkshire [teams] with us, and if that means we can’t go further after the Western Mass. championship, sign me up. I can’t imagine having to drive hours and hours to a different part of the state to play teams you’ve never heard of.”

Softic brings up an interesting point. If all of the Western Mass. teams were to stay in the PVIAC, and opt out of the statewide tournament, the possibility of still having a tournament for just the Western Mass. teams is certainly prominent. On top of that, those very games could continue to be held at the historical and magical Curry Hicks Cage.

“Everything about the Cage [made the games feel different],” Softic offered. “When you walk through the doors, you can almost feel the history percolating everywhere. And then when you walk into the gym itself, the bleachers are so close to the floor, you feel like everyone is on top of you, and you feel as if the entirety of Western Mass. is watching you.”

I couldn’t describe it any better than that. I have never seen a high school basketball venue that tops the Curry Hicks Cage. The history, the memories, the immense joy of hoisting a championship trophy, and the heartbreak. As a kid, I constantly looked forward to the beginning of March, knowing that there would be a plethora of hotly contested matchups that took place on the very same court Julius Erving got to play on. I remember vividly, watching South Hadley and Greenfield battle it out to the final frame in 2012, hoping that one day, I, too, would have the opportunity to play in such a historic arena with 3,000-plus faithful fans deafeningly cheering on their team.

Fast forward to 2018, and there I was, warming up with my brothers as we prepared to play in a Western Massachusetts semifinal game.

I was surprisingly calm, feeling more anxious than nervous, ready to go to battle as it was our school’s (Pioneer) first appearance in the Cage since 2000. I can’t help but get goosebumps when I reminisce about how many black and gold shirts were in the crowd with our “Why Not Us?” saying plastered on the back, the student section behind the hoop filled to the very top. Some students were even pouring out onto the floor for extra space.

An hour and a half later, we were in the fourth quarter. Down by two, 5.3 seconds left on the clock. Drury’s star player, Reece Racette, steps to the line with two shots to all but seal the deal. I look over to coach Thayer with a blank, emotionless stare, thinking I had cost us the game with my turnover on the possession prior. He gives me a look of reassurance, and lets me know the game is not over.

Racette misses the first. He gathers the ball from the official, does his routine, and shoots his second. Knowing it was short, he stepped forward to fight for the rebound, and committed a lane violation. We have a chance. I signal to Jordan Loughman to inbound the ball, and the rest of us fall into place to run our play.

Karl Wheeler sets me a great screen at the free throw line, and Loughman puts a pass right on the money as I take it in stride. I race up the parquet floor, cross over at the half court line, and make a dart for the 3-point stripe directly at the top of the key. I step back and pump-fake to get the defender off his feet. I rip through, and let it fly. The buzzer sounds as the ball reaches its peak. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Game over.

Five days later, we went on to beat two-time defending champion Hopkins Academy in the Western Mass. finals. That was the same Golden Hawks team that beat us by 20-plus points both times we met in the regular season.

I have felt every little detail of all possible playoff feelings while playing at the Cage — history, memories, joy and heartbreak. Each one was heightened due to the location of the game. It is every kid’s dream to make a big play on a big stage with their community watching. To take this away from not just the players and coaches, but the communities, and all of the history that has unraveled on that very court, makes little to no sense at all. I am devastated to hear that there may no longer be a Western Mass. tournament, and that the history of the Cage in general will have little use or meaning to future generations that play in Western Massachusetts.

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