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Lifelong friends court success on Panther hoop team

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MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIORS Ben Rudin, left, and Kyle Dudley, starters for the Panthers, have been playing basketball together since the second grade and call each other life-long friends. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By ANDY KIRKALDY

MIDDLEBURY — Fifteen years ago, Middlebury College senior Ben Rudin’s family moved from New York City to suburban Scarsdale, N.Y. Rudin was the new kid at Quaker Ridge Elementary School.

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long for him to make new best friends with fellow second-grader Kyle Dudley and his twin brother, Kevin.

Kyle Dudley, now Rudin’s teammate on the best Middlebury men’s basketball team in program history, remembers meeting Rudin in the gym. 

“My first memory of him was on a basketball court. I think that’s where the instant connection came from,” Dudley said. “We were both in gym class or something, and we both had this passion for basketball ... We were friends right away. I guess our connection started in basketball, and then we found we had a lot of other common interests after that.”

Rudin and Dudley have what both call a lifelong bond. It was forged not only playing football, baseball, soccer and basketball together in elementary school and starring in basketball in middle school and for Scarsdale High School, but also in their backyards and family rooms.

“We just always, always enjoyed hanging out,” Rudin said. “So after these practices we would say, ‘I’ll come meet you at your house and we’ll hang out.’ It was actually him and his brother ... We were always around each other and became real good friends. We’d hang out at his house, or they’d come over to mine. It was just a real nice relationship.”

Dudley said the friendship started with the two of them organizing games at recess so they could play sports, and grew from there.

“I guess we had what you call play dates back then … It was just one of those things where you meet someone at a really young age and each year you just become better friends,” Dudley said. “Sometimes you just click, I think.”

Their families are also close and typically travel together to games. The sons are just as likely to celebrate with each other’s parents after games as they are with their own, as Rudin did with Dudley’s family after the Panthers defeated Tufts on Jan. 17. 

“We are extremely proud of each other’s sons,” said Rudin’s mother, Bonnie, in an e-mail.  “We feel blessed we could all be part of this incredible journey with Ben and Kyle, and we know how appreciative the boys are that we have been able to share this with them. It is a most unusual and special relationship. We are very lucky.”

DREAM SEASON

Now they not only both play for Coach Jeff Brown’s Panthers, they are the team’s top two scorers. That is saying something for a team that enters this weekend’s play — they host NESCAC foes Trinity on Friday at 7 p.m. and Colby on Saturday at 2 p.m. — at 18-2 and ranked No. 16 among NCAA Division III teams.

Rudin, a four-year starter at point guard and a NESCAC player of the year candidate, is averaging team bests of 13.6 points and 4.7 assists per game. He recently scored his 1,000th career point and is the program’s all-time assist leader. Dudley, a full-time starter at guard this winter for the first time, averages 10.8 points and hits a team-best 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts.

Coach Brown said both have raised the level of their play this season, as have many Panthers during their current a 14-game winning streak. 

“It’s been awesome to coach both Ben and Kyle,” Brown said. “Ben is the classic point guard that really creates and finds people and makes people around him better, and Kyle is that streaky kind of shooter that really displays a lot of quiet confidence in his game. He’s hit a lot of big shots.”

Each has brought a lot to the program beyond athletic ability, he said.

“Kyle, he’s the prankster. He’s very loose. He’s a guy that is very vocal on the bus trips, and obviously with NESCAC competition we have some very long bus trips. He’s very entertaining,” Brown said. “Ben is probably more serious and straightforward, probably doesn’t say a whole lot on the bus trips, but when we get ready to play the games, Ben’s done a fabulous job in being ... a vocal captain and really being in charge of the team.”

The athletes seconded their coach. Rudin said Dudley both helps the team stay loose and shows poise in the clutch — for example, he hit a game-tying three-pointer vs. Bates in the final seconds of the Panthers’ NESCAC opener, a game Middlebury won in overtime.

“Kyle ... will always make you laugh, but he’s also someone that when it comes down to game time you always want him on your team,” Rudin said. “He always has that great calm mindset you want in any of your teammates, especially in crunch time, like that Bates game.”

Dudley said Rudin helps him stay confident.

“Every time I miss, he tells me, ‘Great shot. Shoot it again. That’s your shot. We want you taking that shot every time,’” Dudley said. “For someone to have that much confidence in you, to keep telling you that, it helps me a lot, because he’s such a great player.”

Dudley also said Rudin fires up the team.

“On defense he’s clapping, he’s like, ‘Come on, let’s get this stop. Come on, we need this.’ He’s a great motivator. He motivates the hell out of me, I’ve got to say, and I think he motivates the hell out of the team,” Dudley said. “I just think he’s a great, great leader.”

CHOOSING MIDDLEBURY

If Rudin hadn’t bent the rules a bit to play a little extra hoop, Brown might never have seen him. Brown had heard about Dudley, who averaged 16 points in the postseason for Scarsdale as a junior for a 16-4 team and had hit the game-winning shot in the league title game (after getting the ball from Rudin, of course).

“We got a heads-up that Kyle was somebody that we should take a look at,” Brown said. “It was the fall of their senior year. It was a Sunday, and I took a drive down to Westchester and watched the Scarsdale team play in a fall league. That evening I was impressed with Kyle’s play. Also playing in that game was Ben Rudin, who was not supposed to be playing because he was a soccer goalie and it was in-season, but he decided just to bring his sneakers and play. And I was impressed with the way he was strong with the ball and ran the offense.”

Both players were impressed with Brown and with Middlebury’s academics. But although the Panthers had made progress under Brown — they were 15-10 in 2002-2003 and 12-12 the next season — in 2004-2005, they went 6-18.

Still, Rudin said he and Dudley didn’t mind the chance to be part of a turnaround. 

“Nothing is more enticing than that, the possibility of changing a program around,” he said. “So between that factor and meeting Coach Brown, that was all very enticing for me to apply here ... And then once I found out both Kyle and I were applying, that was even more enticing.”

Still, a recruiting trip to watch the Panthers play perennial power Amherst was almost enough to get them to change their mind. By the time they arrived, five minutes into the game, the Panthers trailed, 17-0. But they both said they saw enough to like.

“It was funny, I remember we said to each other, ‘What are we getting ourselves into?’” Dudley said. “But when the younger guys went into the game, their freshmen and sophomores, they kind of came back ... They were playing really well. So we were like, ‘Wow it looks like there’s a lot of potential for the future with the younger guys.’”

They stuck with their choice. The next season, the Panthers started 8-0 against non-league foes, but weren’t ready to win in NESCAC, and finished 12-12. The next winter, the Panthers finished 15-10 and earned the program’s first-ever home NESCAC playoff game. Last winter, they won a home playoff game, finished 19-8, and earned the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament.

With the Panthers now poised to take another step forward, Brown said Rudin and Dudley are “right at the top of the list” as reasons why. The fact they have played together so long is an advantage.

Rudin said he doesn’t favor passing to Dudley over his other teammates, but that it’s a “nice luxury” to know where Dudley is.

“When I drive, I know exactly where that man is going to be,” he said. “Lucky for me, Kyle has such a great shot, it’s always a good option no matter what ... It’s just a bonus for me knowing that I know where an open shooter is going to be at all times.”

At the same time, Dudley said he knows when Rudin will be ready to pass and when he should make his move, and gave an example.

“If he’s driving left and my guy kind of helps to the middle, I know I need to back up to the corner, and I know that’s where he wants me to go. Because when he’s driving to the hoop and I’m on that side, he’s reading what my defender is going to do,” he said. “I think we have the timing down now.”

MEMORIES

They probably have at least a month to add to their basketball scrapbook. The NESCAC final is on March 1, but another NCAA bid appears to be within the Panthers’ grasp.

Already their memories include their elementary and middle school days, their league championship in high school, Dudley assisting Rudin’s 1,000th point on Jan. 27, and their team’s rise at Middlebury.

Of course, they want to add to that last item on list — Rudin referred to the NESCAC and NCAA tournaments to come.

“We’re planning on more memories to come in the near future,” he said.

But Dudley said nothing can take away from what has already happened.

“I’m just happy to be playing four more years with him and to develop the friendships with the guys on this team. Those are the most important things, the friendships and the lessons we’ve learned of working hard together and being a team, and kind of turning the program around,” he said. “To be part of that is very special.”

Regardless, Rudin and Dudley will be creating memories for years to come.

 “You can tell when you have a lifelong friend, and Kyle is a lifelong friend,” Rudin said. “It’s one of those special friendships where you don’t need to be around someone the entire time. No matter how long you haven’t spoken, when you come together it’s just like old times.”

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