BUILDING AN identity and establishing a culture are annual tasks high school coaches talk about before every season. It’s almost routine for me to hear a handful of coaches these days go on about their current group blazing its own path compared to previous club.
You don’t hear that kind of talk from the Littleton High boys’ basketball team. While many teams gun for originality, the Crusaders are more than content upholding a long-standing basketball culture that is embraced by not only players and coaches but the entire town of Littleton.
“With small northern towns like us or a Groveton, there isn’t much else to do. People come out and are invested in how the boys do every year,” Littleton coach Trevor Howard said. “We always talk about representing the community the right way because putting on that jersey each night isn’t just about the school up here. They’re doing it for the town.”
There’s no limit to the allure Littleton basketball offers the town. Whether it’s current players’ families, alumni or just your average basketball fan, people are flocking to the gym on game night or picking up the next day’s newspaper to see how the Crusaders fared.
Age has no bearing on Littleton’s fandom either. Littleton senior Jason Brammer has learned as much from his time interning at Lakeway Elementary School in Littleton.
“I’ll come in after a big game and they’ll talk to me about how they were there watching,” Brammer said. “They’ll let me know how cool it was to see me or one of the guys do something out there. It’s really cool to hear them so into it.”
Howard’s understanding of Littleton’s pride and passion is how this storied culture remains strong and vibrant. The 46-year-old has spent the last 23 years coaching the Crusaders, but his Littleton roots go even deeper. Howard grew up in the town (population 5,881) and played hoops for the Crusaders, who won a Class M championship when Howard was a senior in 1990. Twenty-six years passed before Howard and the Crusaders added the program’s most recent title in 2016.
The wide gap between titles doesn’t mean Littleton wasn’t successful during all that time. Howard has seen just one losing season during his tenure while the last decade has been particularly good with Littleton reaching the Division IV semifinals in each of the last seven seasons and eight of the last nine.
“If you’re successful and win like we have, kids see that growing up and all end up wanting to play basketball,” Howard said. “You see a lot of the same names coming up through trying to do or outdo what their brothers have done.”
The family tradition is very much in play and a key for the Crusaders. This year’s team has four players — Brammer, Danny Kubkowski, Parker Briggs and Parker Paradice — who are following siblings who played and graduated from Littleton within the last three years. Brammer is the youngest in a line of four brothers Howard has coached since 2006. Brammer also has two older sisters who played for the Littleton girls’ basketball team during their high school days.
“I just remember every year growing up I’d go sit on the side during their practices while waiting to get picked up after school and I watched them train so hard,” said Brammer, who added that he and the other current legacy players often forget that their older brothers all played together like this group is now. “(Howard) would always push them and you’d always see it pay off. It always ended up being a good year. Maybe not the one they expected, but always more wins than losses.
“Watching all that is really a motivational push for you to try your hardest. It was good for me to learn when I was that young that hard work will pay off.”
Whether it’s family-related or it just comes naturally, there is an unavoidable itch to play basketball in Littleton. The proof is in the numbers, which Howard admits are not what they used to be but nothing to complain about.
“The numbers have gone down every year with about 250 kids in the school now, but basketball has remained strong,” Howard said. “We’re probably the only team in the school that has been able to have full JV and varsity teams each year. That’s tough for a lot of other Division IV schools around us up here.”
Another perk Howard is working with is his players’ coachability throughout the years. Howard’s grinding coaching style is a product of playing four years at Saint Anselm College under current Hawks coach Keith Dickson, who is known and respected for getting the most out of players by holding them accountable and pushing them to reach their potential for their sake and the sake of team.
“I played at Saint Anselm, so you know it’s going to be all about discipline and structure here,” Howard said. “Our practices are something like that of a football team. They’re hard and we get after it, but I think a lot of boys like that. It’s what our program has focused on and become known for. Just working hard and doing the right things.”
Howard’s not wrong in thinking his players enjoy his approach and teachings. Brammer has seen Howard’s style breed success through the years without having to adjust or change his stripes.
“He’s definitely the same type of coach he has been all along and the goals haven’t changed,” Brammer said. “The respect has grown ever since I’ve been with him. That comes with how much he’s shown and taught us about the game. Every year, I’m learning something new. He’s always finding a way to do it, so it’s almost like you can never prove him wrong.”
This year’s installment of the Crusaders is no different from those successful squads over the last decade as they sit at 8-1 this season. It took a loss on Tuesday to neighboring White Mountains of Whitefield — a Division III school — to break up Littleton’s chances of a perfect season. The Crusaders beat White Mountains earlier in the season and stunned Division II Hanover in the finals of a Christmas tournament hosted by the Marauders.
“We’re playing a lot better in terms of chemistry and everything is clicking 100 percent,” said Brammer, noting that the Crusaders had very little roster turnover coming into this season. “We’ve noticed all of our starters can shoot the ball. There isn’t that one person you need to rely on to carry the team. Other teams can’t guard just one guy because that’s going to leave some of us open. The options are our greatest weapon.”
Kubkowski, a junior, was Littleton’s weapon of choice last season and remains a top option this season as he and Briggs are each averaging over 20 points a game. Howard said Kubkowski, who scored his 1,000th point earlier in the season, is one of many examples of how players develop year to year in Littleton’s system. Kubkowski was limited to scoring inside of 10 feet as a freshman, but now has the ballhandling and shooting skills to score from wherever he chooses.
Paradice and Todd Krol-Corliss have offered strong efforts with Briggs out of the backcourt while forwards Brammer and Kubkowski are playing good two-way ball. According to Howard, Brammer and Kubkowski frequently battle over who will guard the opposition’s best player.
“This is probably one of the smallest teams we’ve had (in terms of height), but we are very athletic,” Howard said. “I thought a lot of our eggs were in Danny Kubkowski’s basket last year. We’d win if he was great and struggle if he wasn’t. This year isn’t like that. Parker Briggs has really developed and Brammer has worked his butt off every day. We have a bunch of kids that can step up and do things, and that balance just makes us better.”
LITTLETON WAS one of four teams that saw their perfect records get wiped away on Tuesday, leaving seven undefeated teams left across all divisions of NHIAA boys’ and girls’ hoops. The remaining boys teams are Exeter and Winnacunnet of Hampton while the girls’ side features Bishop Guertin of Nashua, Lebanon, Kennett of Conway, Littleton and Farmington.
Just my opinion, but I don’t see Exeter or Winnacunnet finishing undefeated with so much time left in the Division I season. In fact, one of these teams will endure its first loss next week when the Warriors visit the Blue Hawks on Friday in a much-anticipated matchup.
My bets for unbeatens on the girls’ side are on Lebanon and Farmington, which both have an edge over Kennett and Littleton as far as strength of schedule goes. The Raiders’ last known hurdle is their Feb. 6 rivalry tilt with Hanover, which lost the first meeting with Lebanon this season. The Tigers don’t have a clear test in their remaining schedule as their final five opponents have a combined record of 23-33 heading into today’s slate.
Playing for a cause
BASKETBALL TEAMS from Conant of Jaffrey and Monadnock of Swanzey will hold their 10th annual Hoops for Hope event on Saturday, Feb. 2 in Jaffrey.
All proceeds from the event will go toward cancer research, but specifically directed at those affected by the disease within the two school districts and the Monadnock region. The event has raised nearly $40,000 overall and $10,000 in the last two years.
The day of hoops leads off with the unified game at 1 p.m. The regular-season varsity games will follow as the girls’ game starts 2:30 p.m. and the boys get going at 4:15 p.m.