As the girls spilled off the bench and onto the court, we stood and applauded. They met their teammates at half court for one of those impromptu pig piles that look so pre-rehearsed. The coaches embraced. The team managers cried. I couldn’t help but laugh.

If you would have told me eight years ago when I graduated from high school, that I would now be back at the “Aud,” celebrating a Thetford girls’ basketball state championship, I would have never believed you. My laughter acknowledged that disbelief.

The route I take from Thetford to Barre has always been my favorite drive in Vermont, but it is not the only way to get there. It is not even the way the Thetford girls team would go. They take Interstate-91 north a couple of exits, where they get on the winding, paved, Route 25 to get to Barre. Their route is smoother, and perhaps faster. But mine is undeniably more picturesque. And when one is driving to Barre in order to go to the Aud, the anticipation enhances the beauty.

The first fifteen minutes of the ride takes you through the small towns of West Fairlee and Vershire, up a hill and then down again into the idyllic town of Chelsea, population: 1,250. It should be noted that most Chelsea residents would likely gag at the thought of their town being called “idyllic,” because most Vermonters simultaneously take pride in their state’s beauty, see economic advantages of the tourists that are drawn to it, and scoff at the influx of foreign worship to that beauty. And Chelsea is home to the truest Vermonters, if nothing else.

Actually, the tiny village has plenty: a general store, a country store (there is a difference, but one I cannot explain), a post office, bank, barber shop, gas station, liquor store, restaurant, bar, insurance agency, and realtor all within about 500 yards of each other — far more populated towns in Vermont have no such amenities.That those businesses thrive in this small town is the mark of an isolated community that is dedicated to itself, and a microcosm of Vermont at its finest.

The road out of Chelsea is one seen in the postcards and calendars that capture the raw beauty of New England: large, old farm houses are dwarfed by their neighboring red barns, that are dwarfed by the rolling hills and farm land, bisected by a middling river. The road — Route 110 — may be noteworthy because of the surrounding pulchritude, but it is infamous for its potholes. So while you are glancing out at the landscape, you might miss a familiar orange sign warning you of the impending “frost heave” — a regional term for large bumps in the road — and find yourself suspended in the air, preparing for your tailbone to be gravity’s latest casualty.

After a few miles of that, a left-hand turn will bring you onto the Chelsea-Williamstown road, a seven-mile excursion that is predominantly dirt. Again, you will find yourself climbing a hill at low speeds just to go rolling down the other side. You will come into cell phone service for the first time at the top of this hill, thirty minutes into your drive. When you get into Williamstown, you may want to think negative thoughts about their chances of beating your Thetford team should they be playing in Barre. We’ll call this the ugliest part of the drive.

Fear not, for you will soon find yourself in Barre (pronounced “Barry” for those who are not local), the “granite center of the world,” and the host of all semifinal and final basketball games, Vermont Divisions II-IV. Barre, which had a population over 10,000 in the early twentieth century due to the rich granite quarries, has seen a slow, steady decline to its current population, just above 9,000 (making it the fourth most populous city in Vermont). Barre is a classic Northern New England industrial town gone bust: large houses have been sectioned into apartments and old buildings have been repurposed to house whatever kind of business will pay the modest rent. Depending on who you ask, the once-depressed municipality is now on the up-and-up, or is trying very hard to be.

Driving down the main street you will notice dated brick buildings with granite flourishes — Barre seems to have spared no building a comfortable allotment of its finest export. Everything feels antiquated, like you found a wormhole that seamlessly transitioned you back into the 1950s. And though new businesses have begun to populate the old store fronts, signs in many retail windows proclaim “for rent.” You’ll drive by a local sub shop that has survived a Subway moving in next door (and a Quizno’s that has already came and went). A record store, a bookstore, a diner, an opera house, a strip — ahem, “gentleman’s” — club, thrift store, hardware store, restaurant & pub, and my personal favorite: “Pool World,” which sells both swimming pools and billiard tables. Pool World. Brilliant.

The first time you get a glance of the Aud, you will be turning right off of Main Street and onto Seminary Street, which will get you to Auditorium Hill in another 300 yards. The prodigious building looms over the city, as old, as brick, and as granite as the rest, but so much bigger. It sits appropriately above all else, on another level, as though teenagers need another reason to be nervous about playing basketball in front of their entire town (and the whole town will show up, as though it is a Texas state football championship).

You drive up the steep hill, knowing you will soon roll back down it, win or lose. You park wherever you can find parking. If you need to invent a parking spot, then invent it. Vermonters will never be called uncreative, particularly not in the vehicular sense.

The first day of March in Vermont is relatively warm sometimes. It was not so in 2014. The wind blew, your breath showed, forcing you to jog up the granite steps and into the Aud. Everything is brick. There are little ticket booths on both sides of the main lobby. You will give your ticket stub to one of the fine volunteers wearing red suits and they will smile and admit you into high school basketball’s Shangri La.

The building seats just under 2,000 people, but when you are young it feels like a million. As you get older, the building gets smaller, yet retains its mystique. On the side of the building that you enter from, bleachers extend about 15 rows from the hardwood floor to a division that separates several rows of seats that are referred to as the “balcony.” The balcony is the only section with actual seats — as opposed to wooden bleachers — and is thus generally reserved for old people and wet towels. The bleachers are where you find parents, family, or fans that are not students. Both the bleachers and balcony are split halfway down the middle in an imaginary line that separates home and away, yin and yang, good and evil, or, in this case: Thetford and Williamstown.

If you enter the building and go down the stairs and through the basement, where they are selling concessions and showing the game on ridiculously large and outdated televisions, you can go back up a couple flights of stairs on the other side of the building to where the team benches are. Behind each bench, the students from each school sit, stand, and cheer. The cheering is generally positive. Much of it is ridiculous (our town’s fans call-and-respond “T” for Thetford, and “A” for Academy which is simultaneously obnoxious and unoriginal, but it is also something to do during timeouts, I suppose).

In each corner on the students’ side of the gym, there are press boxes nestled ten feet off of the floor, in a triangular perch. Several radio stations announce the games — be it WYKR, WDEV, or WSNO — while a local company video records all of the games for both posterity and profit. Perhaps the several newspaper journalists in attendance also sit up there — I wouldn’t know. In fact, those triangular perches are appropriately mysterious to this day; I’m not sure I want to know what goes on up there. Judging by the rest of the decor, I might assume the writing section of the press are a bunch of men wearing suspenders, chain-smoking, pounding away at typewriters.

The gym is infamous for its stiff rims and dead spots on the floor, but no player has ever complained. It is unlikely any of them will play in front of a larger crowd — Vermont’s Divisions II-IV are not exactly churning out blue-chip basketball prospects, to say the least — and there is no chance that they will play in front of a crowd that is as invested as the crowd at the Barre Auditorium. The building’s brick walls amplify the crowd noise, and the photographers on the baselines — along with the aforementioned press boxes — augment the importance of the game.

And then there is the court itself, a classic spectacle in its own right. The blue and red that make up the center circle, free throw lanes, and endlines should be renamed Barre Blue and Barre Red. The matching protective mats at each end — Barre Red, Barre Blue, and Barre White — do nothing to compromise the reality that the building was built in 1939. Advertisements for local businesses sit above the mats, again reinforcing the sense of community that reigns supreme in Vermont.

I showed up for the final on Saturday the same time I showed up on Thursday for the semifinal: as the national anthem was being sung. I stayed in the stairwell, waiting for the anthem to finish, preparing myself for that moment when you emerge into the foray. It is a breathtaking experience no more how many times you have done it. The colors, the people, the cozy.

I soaked it in. It really does get a little smaller, a little more outdated, and a little more like home each time you walk in. It is a building so characteristic of Vermont that it couldn’t possibly exist somewhere else.

The first time I sit down in the Aud, I always look around at the faces and wonder: what brings them here today? How did they get here? The question might seem to have obvious answers — most everybody is strongly affiliated with the towns that have teams on the floor — but each one of those obvious answers produces its own set of complexities. Did they drive over the Chelsea-Williamstown road? Or did they take Route 25, like the Thetford girls? Is this the biggest event of the year for them? Or are they merely just here to support their community? Do they even like basketball? I wonder how many people are here for the first time, and just how big the building looks to them.

The Thetford Panthers had lost one game all season, to the Division I U-32 Raiders (they had beaten them at home prior to losing on the road). The Williamstown Blue Devils hadn’t lost a game all year, but had played a weaker schedule, placing Thetford in the home whites and Williamstown in away blues. To my knowledge, Thetford had scouted Williamstown at least three different times (meaning members of the coaching staff went to watch them play a game to see what they look like in-person). Williamstown had likely countered an equal amount of times. The game had generated significant buzz due to the respective teams’ pedigrees, and promised to be what Vermonters refer to as a “barnburner,” or a high-scoring affair, due to the Blue Devils aggressive style of play: they full-court-press on every possession, trap in the half court should their opponents ever end up there, and launch three-pointers as though the ball were aflame.

The game was living up to the hype after one eight-minute quarter: Williamstown 24, Thetford 27. My friend turned to me and said, “I don’t know anything about basketball, but that’s a lot of points, no?” Let’s give credit where credit is due: she obviously knew something about basketball, because that is a colossal amount of points to be scored in a single quarter of a high school basketball game.

Up and down the floor they went, with Williamstown’s press dictating a largely two-result outcome for Thetford, as presses often do: the Panthers would either turn the ball over or get an open lay-up. Williamstown shot enough threes that some of them were bound to go in (many of the ones that did go in went off the glass, I might add, almost certainly without such intent). Williamstown’s diminutive point guard got into the lane at will, while Thetford’s two best defenders took turns trying to slow her down, looking progressively more tired with each possession.

Williamstown, being the team that had been running a full-court press all season long, and thus a team built to endure, would make wholesale substitutions every few minutes in order to keep their girls’ legs fresh. Thetford, a deep team, but not as deep as their foe, would counter as often as possible, but they were noticeably more tired the majority of the game.

Heading into halftime, all of Thetford’s key pieces had acquired at least two fouls, and they now trailed 51-45. Williamstown was showing no signs of slowing down.

We went downstairs because that’s what people do at halftime. Familiar faces either averted their eyes, or offered warm smiles. Kids from both towns hustled their parents for crisp twenties that would be parlayed into hot dogs, popcorn, or candy. I said hello to an old baseball coach, thanked my former gym teacher for picking up a tab the night prior, and headed back upstairs. Williamstown entered shortly thereafter. Thetford entered right before the buzzer indicated the end of halftime.

The second half was also a blur. At times Thetford looked destined to lose, trailing by as many as eight points. Williamstown even began their own signature cheer: “I Believe That We Will Win!” recited over and over. Thetford was probably starting to believe that as well.

But then a funny thing happened: Thetford started catching the breaks. Williamstown started missing those three-pointers, and when they did, Thetford would set up their half court offense and get good looks both inside and outside. If Williamstown did score, Thetford inbounded the ball quickly, got the ball to the middle of the floor, and repeatedly shredded the Blue Devil’s vaunted press. That produced easy lay-ups. Sometimes they got fouled, and they made their foul shots. Before you could say “T-A,” the Panthers had taken an eight point lead of their own.

Thetford’s crowd now erupted in the “I Believe That We Will Win!” cheer, a little gamesmanship that the Williamstown fans probably didn’t appreciate. There was just a hair under two minutes to go. Williamstown played hard down the stretch, connecting on shots long and short, but they were forced to foul Thetford to try and extend the game. And as tired as those girls were, they dug deep and knocked down their free throws. The crowd rose to their feet as the last five seconds ticked harmlessly off the clock. The final score, 90-84, shattered the previous girls’ state final scoring record in every division.

 

The Lady Panthers had not taken the same road as I to get to Barre. Mine was the scenic route, complete with bumps, dirt roads, and a welcome lack of cell phone service. Theirs was a relatively smooth journey through the Vermont hills, a clear goal in mind, with just a frost heave or two along the way. Before the game, they must have thought, what’s one more ascent?

So they drove up Auditorium Hill, knowing they would soon be coasting down it.

girls thetford

Cover Image Courtesy of Bridget Dugan-Sullivan.