Blue Devils inpire hoop dreams |

Blue Devils inpire hoop dreams

by Peter Kostes

The Blue Devils are going to the Big Dance!

As basketball aficionados know, in “March Madness” parlance, qualifying for the Big Dance means earning a berth in college basketball’s annual Division I basketball tournament. However, I’m not referring to those Blue Devils, otherwise known as the North Carolina-based hoopsters who play for Duke and one of the most successful college programs of all time.

Central Connecticut State University. Those Blue Devils.

Haven’t heard of them? I don’t know if most of the rest of the country outside the Northeast – heck, make that northeast New Britain, Conn., which is home to Central – has either.

Although not a Central alumnus, I spent my first two years of college attending the school. During my sophomore year, I was part of the then-Division II Central basketball program. Following high school, I thought my hoops career would be relegated to intramurals and a long stretch of rec league competition in later years.

To my surprise, Central revived its dormant junior varsity basketball team shortly before the start of my second year at the school. To my amazement, after a week of tryouts, I made the squad.

For the most part, our 10-man squad represented a place to stockpile several transfers and academically challenged players awaiting their eligibility for varsity play to kick in during the second half of the season. The JV team, which competed against junior college programs, played a separate schedule from the varsity. While the varsity rode the big tour buses across the Northeast or occasionally flew by airliner, the JVs commuted to games in an old athletic department van driven by our coach, who was a varsity assistant.

I had no illusions of my chances to advance to varsity and college basketball stardom. However, playing on the JVs was as good as it gets for a gym rat. A spot on Central’s second team meant prime gym time for almost six months, as nearly every day we practiced with the varsity and regularly scrimmaged with the Blue Devils’ top squad. With only one main indoor basketball facility at Central, during freshman year my dorm mates and I were relegated to playground ball or intramural leagues that routinely competed between 8 p.m. and midnight – well after the men’s and women’s hoop programs had finished practicing for the day.

The JVs nearly always played a Saturday game and one other contest during the week. Except for Sundays, we had first dibs on the gym, along with the varsity, and practiced from approximately 3 to 6 p.m.

I was in hoops heaven.

Not only did the athletic department provide free sneakers, after every practice I went to the “cage” in the locker room, handed in my dirty practice clothes and received a clean set in return. I was a college sophomore, had access to the hoops court every day – and people were doing my laundry. Heaven, indeed.

About a decade after my brush with college basketball in the late ’70s, Central upgraded its program and entered Division I play as an independent. Over the years, Central has regularly traveled to compete against better-known Division 1 programs only to get trounced as those schools padded their early season win totals. The Blue Devils are now part of the Northeast Conference, whose league champion receives an automatic bid to the Big Dance. The Blue Devils captured that championship last week, earned their first tournament bid in school history and launched my unexpected connection to March Madness.

Getting caught up in the excitement of one’s school vying for a Division I national basketball championship was something left to my friends and work colleagues who attended larger schools. Until this week.

Even if it means the dance will be a short one -15th-seed Central faces No. 2-seed Iowa State in the Midwest Regional – I’m going to enjoy rooting for the underdog tomorrow in this David vs. Goliath matchup. After a trip to my closet in search of a threadbare “Central” sweatshirt, I plan to follow the Blue Devils’ progress with passion. I may not paint half my face blue or cut eyeholes in the basketball that rattles around the back of my car to create a game time headdress, but I will savor the moment and sweet memories (sweet-smelling ones if you count the daily laundry service) of my college days.

Thanks, Blue Devils, I never thought I’d get the chance.

– Peter Kostes is publisher of The Record-Courier.