FAIR HAVEN — It was a pretty unique situation on Saturday in Fair Haven Union High School’s gym — a four-school girls basketball scrimmage that included three of the four Vermont state champions from a season ago.
There was Division II champion Fair Haven, D-III title holder Thetford and Division IV champ West Rutland.
All have a realistic chance to defend their crown and they were using the day to polish their game in preparation of the season opener.
Thetford came the greatest distance. The Panthers covered 80 miles to get to Fair Haven, but Thetford coach Eric Ward feels it was well worth the trip. He will keep coming back.
“We will come as long as Kyle (Fair Haven coach Kyle Wilson) will have us,” Ward said. “It is a really good scrimmage.”
Ward and the Panthers know the way to Fair Haven. They have been coming to this preseason event for several years.
They also know the way to Barre, the site of the state championship game. Thetford is aiming to get to its seven consecutive D-III title game in 2020.
There is a formula to the sustained success: Play a lot of basketball. And then play some more.
Thetford players, along with others in the Upper Valley, are involved in a very active AAU program called River Valley Blue. It goes from the sixth grade up through the high school years. Ward coaches the sixth and seventh graders in the River Valley Blue program.
“It helps me to get to know them and them to know me a little better,” Ward said.
There are players from other high schools he coaches also and that’s fine with them.
“If they want to play, I’ll coach them,” he said.
“Last summer we played 40 games at 20 different schools,” Ward said.
That’s not all. They also go to a team camp at Castleton University and at the University of Southern Maine.
The connection between Thetford and Southern Maine is a natural one and it goes way back. Thetford native Gary Fifield is a legendary former coach at Southern Maine. He piloted the Huskies to a 660-131 record with three appearances in three NCAA Division III national championship games during his 27 years at the helm of USM.
It is a cliche but to Ward the season is about getting better every game.
“We call it it a 20-step program. Every one of the 20 games is a step to get us ready for our four playoff games,” Ward said.
The Panthers will go after another crown with different teams in the mix. Lake Region, the team Fair Haven beat in the D-II championship game, has dropped down to Division III and so has Bellows Falls and Otter Valley.
“Division III has a different look,” Ward said.
Coach Carl Serrani’s West Rutland team and Wilson’s Slaters were trying to put down the foundation Saturday for what they hope will be another run to the Barre Auditorium.
The fourth team in the scrimmage had different objectives. Poultney won just three games last year and probably is not on anyone’s list as a Division IV contender this season.
But Blue Devil coach Todd Hayes loved the opportunity for his squad to go against such elite teams, something that can only make them better. When Proctor opted out of the scrimmage, he jumped at the chance to fill in and he would love to come back each season.
“It is a no-brainer,” Hayes said of the short trip over to Fair Haven.
The Devils were roughed up 62-12 by Thetford and also got a JV scrimmage against Fair Haven in as part of the day.
Hayes felt the day was productive.
“We had problems with our interior defense and I think that is something we can improve on,” he said. “We were a little helter skelter on offense.
“But I liked the body language and effort. That was huge.”
It was wall-to-wall basketball in Fair Haven that day. Before the girls teams took the floor at 11:30 a.m., coach Bob Prenevost’s Slaters held a triangular boys basketball scrimmage with Saratoga and Proctor in the morning.
“Bob and I both wanted to scrimmage on this day. We are good friends and we made it work,” Wilson said.
The girls state championship games are scheduled for the weekend of March 13-14, 2020 at Barre Auditorium. You can be pretty certain that some, if not all, of the teams in the Granite City that weekend will be ones that began fine tuning themselves on Saturday in Fair Haven.