Like its more rough-and-tumble cousin, high school football, high school basketball’s busiest night is Friday. High school gymnasiums, those under-ventilated cesspools of stale air and residual gym-class body odor, magically transform into supercharged bandboxes where anything can happen and usually does.
By opening tip, the smell’s gotten worse and your jacket is irretrievably lost underneath the bleachers, which is beside the point. There are kids out there whom you know and are nervous for, adolescents on a squeaky floor handling the scrutiny of peers and assembled authority figures with frightening coolness.
In high school basketball, Friday night is where the magic happens.
For members of the boys and girls varsity basketball teams at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy and Kohelet Yeshiva High School, this presents a dilemma. Because in their universe, Friday night is when Shabbat happens.
What to do? Well, um, how about Saturday night? Saturday night, as Sir Elton John would say, is all right — maybe not for fighting but certainly for basketball.
Biannual contests between Barrack and Kohelet happen just infrequently enough to be special and just frequently enough to be tradition. The atmosphere is a fusion of over-the-top intensity and music festival sans music — like a rope burn at a Jewish overnight camp.
And as with a rope burn, kids brought up in this milieu daydream about playing in these games from the moment they learn of them.
“I’ve been coming to this game and looking forward to playing in it since I was in sixth grade,” said Sophia Shapiro, a senior guard/forward on Barrack’s girls’ varsity squad. “All the parents from both schools all know each other and are all here, the gym’s packed and all that energy makes it that much more fun.”
Noam Troodler, Kohelet’s senior point guard and co-captain, echoed Shapiro’s sentiments.
“When you’re in middle school, you go to that game and see your seniors play against (Barrack) … it’s a cool experience because everyone in the community comes together to watch it. One of the reasons people get excited to play on varsity is to take part in this game.”
School administrators, too, realize the impact of these games on their school’s respective cultures.
“For two schools that are more focused academically, it’s nice to have that piece to add to the student life of both schools,” said Justin Cooper, Barrack’s athletic director. “It may not be Duke-Carolina, but they know that for two nights out of the year, it will be Duke-Carolina.”
Barrack-Kohelet may not be Duke-Carolina, but these two schools share just as much DNA as those two Tobacco Road powerhouses.
“This is the natural rivalry that occurs between the two Jewish options,” Cooper said. “There’s that friendliness, that familiarity — of course, Kohelet is in the building where Barrack used to be when Barrack was Akiba.”
Perhaps because of this shared DNA, a unique sense of decorum exists. Good sportsmanship and an understated yet plainly visible bonhomie prevails, regardless of which team scores more points.
“Obviously we’re trying to win the game, but we’re also trying to make everyone feel good about what they’ve contributed to the team,” Cooper said.
Barrack, heavy favorites on both the girls and boys sides, can afford to take that approach. Both of its teams have done a lot more winning than losing this season; both were top seeds in the Tri-County Independent School League playoffs, and both will have played in that league’s championship game at Jefferson University by press time.
Kohelet hasn’t fared as well. Both teams are on the younger side and have played around the .500 mark. Kohelet might not want this game more, but they want it worse.
“We know we’re going to have to keep our emotions in check if we want to stay close,” said Troodler, who played in Jan. 11’s 65-33 loss to Barrack. “We were definitely slacking last time defensively. And we’ve got to hit our open shots. We had a lot of opportunities last time that we messed up — the game could’ve been a lot closer than it was, and it will be this time because we’re going to hit those open shots.”
For the briefest of moments, it looked like Troodler might’ve been onto something, as the underdogs went ahead early with a quick deuce.
But Barrack responded with a 6-0 run punctuated with a three-pointer to go into the first stoppage up 6-2.
At the end of the first quarter, Barrack sophomore Yonatan Hassidim dazzled the standing-room-only crowd with the night’s most athletic play — an above-the-rim put-back of an air-balled three-pointer at the buzzer.
“That was the most athletic play in Barrack history” issued from somewhere deep within the sideline morass of Barrack’s student section. “And he’s Jewish!” another exclaimed.
Still, midway through the first half, the teams were knotted at 14. Moments later, though, Barrack senior wing Ben Bernstein drew a foul on a strong drive and hit two free throws.
It was 16-14 Barrack. That’s as close as it would get.
Barrack senior sharpshooter Abe Wachs hit three-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor — firing pantomimed arrows into the crowd like a Jewish Katniss Everdeen.
Barrack’s catalyst, though, was the more reserved Bernstein, who was all over the floor, filling up the stat sheet — steals, blocked shots, acrobatic driving scoop shots.
Wachs hit two free throws right before the half capping a 20-0 Barrack run. Goodnight, Kohelet.
In the second half, more of the same: another three from Wachs, one from senior guard Matan Dolev and a series of impressive put backs and blocked shots by Hassidim.
Kohelet played hard to the end; Troodler at times played like a man possessed, putting his head down and driving to the cup like a fullback. He found only short gains. Barrack 65, Kohelet 34.
On the girls side, Kohelet was even more overmatched from a talent perspective but stayed in the game through the first two quarters, down 23-11 at half.
In the third, Barrack broke the game open with a 15-6 run.
Both sides brought it in terms of energy and, to their credit, the Kohelet girls never stopped hustling, even after they went down 20-plus in the fourth quarter.
Barrack coach Chris Corcoran proved to be one of those coaches who screams even louder when their team’s up big. He exhorted, implored and beseeched until the clock read double-zeros, likely losing his voice in the process.
Meanwhile, every time Kohelet scored, though they had no chance of getting back into the game, its supporters went crazy. It’s clear these programs are at two different places.
Barrack 50, Kohelet 23.
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