Commodore boys' basketball rallies past Fairfax in opener, honors Coach Quinn
VERGENNES — Thursday’s Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball game began and ended with standing ovations.
The first ovation came at the request of Ben Epstein, a member of the Commodores’ 2001 Division I championship team for which Peter Quinn, who had died five days before, had served as an assistant coach.
With Quinn’s wife, Marian Greenberg, and sons Liam and Sam Quinn on hand, Epstein spoke in front of the packed house in memory of the beloved VUHS coach and school-based clinician.
After talking about Quinn’s coaching, basketball, mentorship and “trademark intensity,” Epstein said Quinn loved “a raucous gym,” and Epstein requested noise, rather than a moment of silence, to honor Quinn.
The more than 1,000 who had hung on every word rose to their feet and made noise for more than a minute.
And about 90 minutes later they stood and cheered again when the Commodores, under the leadership of another former VUHS standout, 2009 graduate Josh Carter, rallied for an emotional 58-52 victory over visiting BFA-Fairfax.
It proved to be a complicated night for the Commodores. Five minutes into the first period junior forward Ben Curtis and a visiting player collided at midcourt, and Curtis fell hard. There was certainly no ill intent, but Curtis sat up, looked helplessly at his bench and pointed at a left arm bent at an angle not intended by nature. The school trainer and EMTs attended to him for about 10 minutes and then helped him off the court. It looked like it would be a miracle if he returns this winter.
“It was just a freak accident, and I feel for Ben,” said Carter, who was elevated from the VUHS JV job to the varsity coaching position after the loss of Quinn. “I think that threw us all off. It was an emotional start to the game. We were trying to honor Pete, and to have that happen was devastating.”
Carter praised his team for being able to focus through all the emotion and pain.
“We came out ready to fight for Pete all night long, and when we lost a brother we were ready to fight for him, too,” Carter said. “I think guys really came together as a team tonight through all that adversity and grinded all the way to the end, and that’s all I could ask.”
Guard Nate Bourgeois, a key ballhandler and defender and one of only two seniors on the roster, said once the Commodores did settle down the big crowd gave them a lift.
“We really felt the energy from the fans. That really helped us a lot tonight,” he said.
Bourgeois also said the Commodores were determined to give their best on Thursday for their late coach and had Quinn in their minds throughout.
“For the whole game he was always there for us,” he said. “We knew that we came out to play for him tonight.”
Fairfax also showed up. The Bullets looked particularly comfortable on offense in the first period, which they closed with an 8-0 run to take a 16-8 lead. All five Fairfax starters scored in the period, and the Commodores looked tentative, committing five turnovers and failing to get the ball inside. Junior forward Kevin Jackson kept VUHS afloat with six of his game-high 22 points in the quarter, while Fairfax forward Everett Haddock scored six points inside during the 8-0 run.
Then Fairfax guard Owen Demar scored a transition hoop to open the second quarter, and the Commodores trailed by 10. But then they unleashed hell on the Bullets, specifically a 2-2-1 full-court press. Suddenly the Bullets looked highly uncomfortable — they coughed up the ball 10 times in the period and finished with 25 turnovers for the game after committing just two in the opening quarter.
All the Commodores were harassing Fairfax mercilessly, but none more than junior point guard Josias Salomao, who finished with seven steals and generally made life miserable for Bullet ballhandlers.
“Josias was flying all over the court. He wreaks havoc out there,” Carter said.
In the first 2:27 a Luke Bergmans transition hoop after a Bourgeois steal, a Salomao three and two Jackson free throws cut the lead to three, and suddenly it was a ballgame. When Jackson banked in a three at the buzzer (was Quinn there to guide that one home?), the Commodores trailed by just two, 26-24.
And they came out in the third with hoops from Jackson, from Bourgeois, and then Bourgeois after a Salomao steal. VUHS had the lead at 28-26 with just 40 seconds gone.
And then went cold. Over the next seven minutes the Commodores managed only a Salomao layup after another theft. Meanwhile Haddock dominated inside, scoring seven points in an 11-2 run that gave Fairfax a 39-30 lead. Jackson scored in the lane at 0:18 to make it 39-32, and VUHS junior Jake McGee stole the ball to keep it a seven-point game after three.
Then the VUHS pressure took its toll on the Bullets again in the fourth, forcing five turnovers in the first 2:12 and eight in the period. The Commodores went on a 10-2 run to take a 42-41 lead, prompting a Fairfax timeout at 5:13.
Five Commodores scored in that surge: Junior Gage Lalumiere hit a free throw, senior forward Ezekiel Palmer drove for two, Salomao converted yet another steal, Bergmans took a Bourgeois feed and swished a three, and Jackson canned a jumper, with a Palmer assist.
Two Cam Meunier free throws at 4:28 restored Fairfax’s lead, but not for long: Half a minute later Bergmans nailed a three on another Bourgeois feed, and the crowd erupted. The Commodores held the lead the rest of the way, with buckets from Salomao on an acrobatic drive and Palmer and Jackson in transition. Then they hit enough free throws down the stretch to nail down the win.
Haddock (18 points and good work on the boards), Carl Bruso (14 points) and Meunier (10 points) led Fairfax.
Jackson led all scorers with 22. Salomao finished with 12, Bergmans had 10, Palmer tossed in six, and Bourgeois added five. Palmer and Jackson helped VUHS hold their own with the taller Bullets on the boards; Fairfax finished with a 36-32 edge in rebounds. VUHS committed 11 fewer turnovers than the Bullets’ 25.
Bourgeois said the Commodores might have established an identity on Thursday.
“We’ll be known as a defensive team this year, lots of steals and fast-break points,” Bourgeois said.
Carter said a team that is suddenly his has a high ceiling. But on Thursday he was just happy the Commodores played hard in Quinn’s memory, and the gym was full to pay tribute to his former coach and mentor.
“Today was much bigger than a win or a loss,” Carter said. “It was about honoring Pete, and I think we as a community did our best to do that.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.