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March 11. 2013 8:59PM

Vin Sylvia: Souhegan boys inspired by late teammate

TONY Barksdale wasn't a star athlete at Souhegan High, but he was a key member of the Amherst school's boys' basketball team.

"Nobody better understood his role as a member of the team," said Sabers coach Mike Heaney. "Tony would have loved to get more playing time, but if there was a game where he didn't see a lot of action, he'd show up the next day at practice and work even harder. That's what he did so well: set an example for his teammates. He never let us practice or play soft."

When Barksdale graduated last spring - with honors - the Sabers lost more than a role player. They lost their drive, their edge.

With a senior-dominated core back from a team that had gone 16-2 during the previous regular season, the Sabers were popular picks to win the NHIAA Division II title this year. But they lost their first two games, never won more than three straight and finished the 2012-13 schedule with an underwhelming record of 11-7. Instead of heading into the postseason as tournament favorites, they entered as the No. 7 seed.

By now you probably know about the tragedy that took place at the off-campus home of a Boston University fraternity on March 2. In the early-morning hours, Barksdale, a 19-year-old, Mont Vernon resident majoring in engineering at BU, was found unconscious after a party at the frat. He died at a nearby hospital hours later.

BU has suspended the fraternity, citing it for serving alcohol to minors.

Naturally, Barksdale's death shocked and saddened the Souhegan community, especially the members of the boys' basketball program. But while they mourned his passing, the Sabers also made a point of celebrating the life of their friend and former teammate, and they recalled the example he'd set.

Never play soft.

On Wednesday, Souhegan hosted 10th-seeded Hanover in the tournament's first round. The Marauders entered the game having won six of their last seven, including a 59-52 victory over the Sabers on Feb. 23. It didn't matter. Hanover never had a chance.

With the entire Souhegan rooting section dressed in white shirts emblazoned with "Tony" on the front and Barksdale's old uniform number, 42, on the back, chants of "TO-NY BARKS-DALE!" reverberating through the gym and the Sabers playing with a renewed sense of purpose, the game became a rout. Final score: Souhegan 55, Hanover 33.

The fans weren't the only ones wearing 42 that night. The entire team came out in warmup jerseys adorned with the number, and when senior captain Brandon Len removed his, there it was again, replacing the 11 he'd worn throughout the regular season.

Two days later, the Sabers attended Barksdale's wake. The following day, they were back at school for his memorial service, with Heaney serving as one of the speakers. And then they got on a bus and headed to the Seacoast, for a quarterfinals game at No. 2 seed Portsmouth, another team to which they'd lost during the regular season, 46-34 just a couple of weeks earlier.

This time, Len almost matched his team's previous output against the Clippers all by himself, the 5-foot, 10-inch guard pumping in 33 points as the Sabers stunned their hosts, 69-65.

Not that it was a one-man show.

"I was perplexed at times during the (regular) season because we weren't playing with the same intensity as last year, but losing Tony has galvanized everyone," Heaney said. "It's inspired our kids to honor their lost friend by doing their best, and it's actually made them play with less pressure. They finally started playing the way they're capable of playing."

There was one other factor at work Saturday night, Heaney believes.

"Our players had spent five days putting others first - Tony's family, the community, their classmates ... " Heaney said. "Saturday night was a time for some good karma to come back their way. In spite of Tony's tragic death, I believe that good things happen to good people - and my players are very good people."

Souhegan returns to action Wednesday at 6 p.m., when it faces No. 3 Lebanon in the first game of a semifinals doubleheader at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gymnasium. (Unbeaten Pembroke Academy takes on Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in the second game, at 7:30.) Once again, the Sabers will have Tony Barksdale in a supporting role.

Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at vsylvia@unionleader.com.


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