There almost wasn’t a boys basketball game at Sag Harbor Friday night because the already-slim ranks of Bridgehampton’s Killer Bees had been pared even further by two academic ineligibilities, which had prompted the Bees’ coach, Carl Johnson, earlier in the week to forfeit a contest to Bridgehampton’s chief Class D rival, Shelter Island.
At last Thursday’s practice, Johnson, who has played for and coached Bridgehampton teams that have won state championships — a golden era that’s ever more receding into the distance — said the two players who’d been ruled academically ineligible had rectified the failing grades, and that thus Friday’s clash in the Harbor was on.
(Bridgehampton’s academic eligibility policy, which prohibits athletes with one failing grade from playing, is stricter than other neighboring schools’.)
“Is the aim to punish a kid or to help him become a better student?” said Johnson. “If I’d had a junior varsity team, I would have pulled two kids up from the jayvee to replace the ones who were academically ineligible, but I don’t have that luxury. I don’t want academic requirements to be watered down, but I do think our policy is too strict. With some schools — I know, because I’ve talked to other coaches — you can’t play if you’ve got two fails, and with some it’s even three. One fail could be because of a personality conflict. Also, kids learn at different rates.”
“We’re not going to play games with five kids anymore,” Johnson’s assistant, Joe Zucker, a well-known artist, said during a separate conversation that day. “We did that last year at Smithtown Christian and wound up with three guys playing in overtime.”
“We had six,” Johnson recalled at that day’s practice. “Three fouled out and we finished with three kids on the court in overtime. . . . We lost.”
Zucker, however, said he remembered one of the referees that night remarking on Bridgehampton’s grit.
That grit also was in evidence at Pierson’s packed Spirit Night gym Friday. The Whalers’ bench was full to the brimming, whereas two 5-foot-5-inch Bees sat with Johnson and Zucker on Bridgehampton’s.
Later, following the 58-44 loss, Johnson said he and Zucker couldn’t have been prouder of the way their charges (all seven of whom saw action) had played.
It was a battle royal, played from start to finish at a feverish pace amid a din, though the ejection of Bridgehampton’s strong freshman inside man and the team’s second-leading scorer, Josh Lamison, in the final minutes of the second quarter, eviscerated the Bees.
“We’ve been talking about character all week,” said Johnson. “When things don’t go your way, you can either feel sorry for yourself or come out fighting. It’s easy to give up. I’m so proud of them because they didn’t give up.”
Asked if he thought Lamison’s ejection had been “just,” the coach said, “No. They [Lamison and Pierson’s Jake Bennett] became entwined. They were hooked together, arm in arm. The ref [who said Lamison had slammed Bennett to the floor] saw the retaliation, not the initial contact.”
Thirty-nine personal fouls were called that night, four technicals among them.
A putback of Jason Hopson’s missed 3-pointer that followed a 3 by Tylik Furman enabled the Bees to pull to 25-22 near the end of the second quarter, but the Whalers put the game away in the third as Forrest Loesch, a relentlessly hard-charging forward who was to finish with a game-high 25 points, led the way. A reverse fast-break layup by Loesch in the period’s final minutes treated the Whalers to a 10-point lead.
Entering the fourth, the home team led 47-31, and the band played on.
“It was a battle,” Dan White, Pierson’s coach, said in the aftermath. “I’m very proud of our guys. Four years ago [on his arrival here] I didn’t know a thing about the Pierson-Bridgehampton rivalry. It’s always a battle with them . . . the gym was packed. This makes us 6-0 now. Our first goal, which I think is realistic, is to win our league. We were second last year. Then our goal is to go deep into the playoffs.”
Of Loesch, who repeatedly bulled his way to the hoop through traffic, sending bodies flying, White said, “He’s sometimes a little out of control, but,” he said with an appreciative smile, “he’s a competitor.”
Jason Hopson led Bridgehampton with 17 points.
Bridgehampton made only eight of its 26 free throws. Had the Bees shot 70 percent — said to be a reasonable expectation — from the line, they would have been right there.