Persistent Raiders finally scale the mountain
DURHAM - The Lebanon High boys' basketball team has experienced an array of emotions at UNH's Lundholm Gymnasium across recent seasons.
Satisfaction was one feeling that eluded the Raiders, who hadn't produced a Division II championship in four consecutive trips to Durham. Saturday changed everything, though, as a 59-42 title game win over Coe-Brown Northwood Academy finally dropped the monkey off Lebanon's back.
"There's been a lot of pressure for this group to win it," said Lebanon coach Kieth Matte, who lost in the D-II championship last season and the semifinals the three seasons prior. "They needed to win it and it's been a while for me, too."
Matte guided Lebanon to its last title in 1998 in his first season as head coach. Culminating his 20th season with the Raiders in the same fashion he started his tenure wasn't the highlight for Matte.
What proved to be more important was watching seniors K.J Matte, Ryan Milliken and Graham Chickering finally get over the hump. K.J. played four years of varsity ball for Lebanon while Milliken and Chickering both played three.
"This is such a special group of kids," Kieth Matte said. "Their record at home is something like 42-2. Then you put that with what they've done in the playoffs and everything else. It's been such a remarkable run and I am glad that the our seniors get to say they won it in their last season."
Coach Matte pointed to many reasons why this installment of the Raiders differed from the previously snake-bitten squads that went 90-16 in the past five seasons, yet were denied a state title until Saturday. The maturations of Milliken and Chickering were crucial with K.J. Matte missing half the season with a broken foot. The emergence of junior Chris Nulty's inside-outside added a wrinkle as well.
However, continuity was arguably Lebanon's most important trait. K.J. Matte, Milliken and Chickering played three years together on varsity while junior Matt Eyelander joined them for the last two seasons. All four players and Nulty stayed together through the summer on high school summer teams or with Longhorns Basketball Club, an elite AAU squad based out of Lebanon.
"Coach Matte has really preached about team chemistry," Milliken said. "We get together as a team, work out together and just make this bond. It's hard to break that when you get on a court. Everybody just knows how to play with each other."