Aside from the locked entrances to the gym; the absence of parents and students behind the team benches; the presence of masks on each player, coach, trainer and administrator; the absence of pregame handshakes between the players and coaches (the decision to remove them is these days as compulsory as that gesture of sportsmanship used to be); and the overall feeling of tense self-awareness—the Monday night matchup between the Poughkeepsie Pioneers and the Beacon Bulldogs was a pretty routine blowout in favor of Poughkeepsie, an occurrence the team and its supporters have come to expect over the last couple seasons.
I went to a playoff game last year between Poughkeepsie and Rye. It was the quarterfinal of the NY State tournament, and the Pioneers were seeking to reclaim the championship they had won—New York’s competitive Single A—in 2019. That night, the stadium vibrated with excitement. The stands were full on either side, the doors were open and anyone, including four curious kids from Vassar, could join the fray for a couple dollars. It was a sad time for basketball: Kobe Bryant, probably the most beloved player by the generation of anyone reading this, had just died, and his jersey was draped on the Poughkeepsie bench, left empty to mourn. The Pioneers finished their season in a state championship loss mere days before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide emergency, of which Dutchess County sports became an immediate casualty.
Almost a year later, whether basketball would happen in New York high schools was still unclear. Basketball makes every participant a close contact through its physical intimacy and indoor setting; its 2020-2021 season was one of the least likely among team sports to come to fruition. But in late January, the New York State Department of Health announced that local authorities could decide for themselves if they wanted to return to play. There were stipulations. No fans. No state tournament. Masks must be worn at all times which, at no fault of the players or coaches, is an impossible request to abide by while playing basketball. When masks get sweaty, the cloth becomes flimsy and is sucked into your mouth along with air. It is like breathing through a thick wet rag.
All games would be within-district competitions. This meant teams couldn’t seek out other competitive schools from across the state. Fans gone—the lifeblood of high school sports, infamous for their booming support for the home team and equally measured jeer for the away team. Players and coaches who normally lean back on the wall of sound would have to find something other than their own anxiety to fill their heads.
No worries, though, for the Pioneers. From the opening tip, the Poughkeepsie bench was explosively loud: “DEFENSE DEFENSE DEFENSE” they chanted, a dozen or so kids doing their best impression of hundreds of their classmates, fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles. Noticeably, they were dispersed across the rows of the stands, seemingly to mitigate the spread of the unseen opponent.
The overwhelming positivity on the bench was led by senior guard Shai’dell Gause. The player should’ve been on the court for the Pioneers. After months of uncertainty in which the only structured games to be found were on outdoor courts and in Pennsylvania (the only state hosting tournaments), Gause injured his knee in just the first week of practice. Sidelined, Gause still gave everything he could for his team. He banged his crutch on the bleacher stands for his teammates on the court. His words made it clear how fortunate he felt to have a season at all: “I just want everyone to excel at anything they do…we’re having fun doing what we do. It’s just a blessing.” I asked if there was anyone he was particularly proud of. “Everybody,” he said. “I’d like to point out the bench.” He paused. “Yeah definitely the bench,” he said, laughing at the well-earned cliche.
Back in the game, Poughkeepsie quickly gained control. Seniors Shelvon Grant and Javel Cherry created obvious mismatches in Poughkeepsie’s favor, and they used that advantage to make life very uncomfortable for the Beacon guards. Even when they managed to get to the basket, the Beacon guards sped themselves into wild floaters.
The difference in skill and size was effectively exposed by Grant. The senior guard blew through the Beacon backcourt not with tricky dribbles but a full head of steam. He attacked from everywhere, straight up from the top of the key, on the elbow or in the corner where he countered a late close out with a quick blow-by. Each time he would take one decisive dribble, then gather the ball between his arms like a football running back and drive to the basket. Then he’d pull his head up at the last second and maneuver in mid-air to find himself in point blank range of the basket.
Another senior, Dejon Hamilton, was able to pick his spots at will throughout the game. He set up shop at the top of the key and raised his arms casually expecting an entry pass. The Poughkeepsie offence was set up in a three out, two in formation. They swung the ball along the perimeter until an inevitable pass to Hamilton, who would make a move to the basket and, drawing a defender, either drive or find a cutting Zaccai Curtis suddenly freed by the busy opponent. This was more or less the Pioneers’ recipe for success.
I caught the Pioneers on a big night. Curtis, Grant and Cherry each scored in double digits and did it in symbiosis. The ball moved smoothly and consistently throughout the halfcourt and hardly ever sputtered in an isolation dribble. Cherry scored 13, somehow quietly, in just the third quarter. But that doesn’t mean the play of the upperclassmen wasn’t exciting: Curtis had a monster breakaway slam in the third quarter and after a turnover pinned a fastbreak layup attempt off the backboard. Even if the points still counted because of a goaltend call, the athleticism, anticipation and precision was next level. “Hustle points” he called it.
Although every player I spoke with expressed gratitude for playing at all this season, they have their eyes on the future. Each senior hopes to play at the next level, including Curtis who has an offer from a Division I junior college in Arizona. Making sure his players are prepared is Pioneers Coach Cody Moffet’s main goal: “If they want to play at the college level we try to help them as best we can to get them prepared for that, not only on the court but off the court as well,” he explained.
Now, they have to grapple with the present. When I first spoke to Moffet in late March, there was no postseason. The day of the Beacon game, Poughkeepsie released a schedule which would include a tournament in district schools. For a team that has routinely been in championship contention, the smaller bracket isn’t a downer according to Grant: “We just want to win whatever is at the end.” It’s a warranted earned mindset for Hudson Valley’s big fish. In the district, everyone wants a piece of Poughkeepsie. “We’re the team to beat,” Curtis said. “Our goal is to not lose again.” So far, they haven’t. The playoffs start March 10.