THERE ARE many good reasons why tonight's boys' basketball game between city rivals Manchester High School Central and Trinity High is one of the most anticipated season-openers in memory.
Coaches around the state have spoken of this as a likely preview of March's Division I championship game, with Trinity's defending champion Pioneers hosting Central's Little Green, possibly the only team capable of beating them.
Naturally, as one would expect from a match-up of premier teams, the game will feature some of New Hampshire's top players and two of its most respected coaches. Dave "Doc" Wheeler's Central lineup includes point guard Dawson Dickson and one of the state's most intriguing newcomers, forward John Martin, a transfer from Florida. Dave Keefe's Trinity squad includes Carmen Giampetruzzi, possibly the state's best all-around high school athlete, and forward Wenyen Gabriel, who, if recovered from a fractured tibia, figures to be the most dominant frontcourt player in Division I.
And, well, this is an intracity game, and those always inspire heightened intensity and heightened emotions, regardless of how talented the teams are. Given the talent of the two teams tipping off tonight, the atmosphere in Trinity's McHugh Gym should be electric.
But that intensity and those emotions, in addition to enhancing the excitement of a potentially great high school sports event, also can tarnish the competition — as what's become known as the "Turkey Bowl Brawl" sadly reminded us.
That's why tonight's opponents got together last Thursday for a proactive exercise in good sportsmanship, why administrators from the schools met Monday morning and why Trinity has taken steps to heighten security for the game.
"The relationships between the two schools is very solid, there's a strong spirit of cooperation, and our goals (for tonight's game) are the same," said Trinity principal Denis Mailloux.
"One can never fully predict what human behavior is going to be, but we're accentuating the positive. There's a good, healthy sense of competition, but it's largely among kids who have grown up together and played on other teams together. This is competition, not warfare."
For those of you unfamiliar with what happened at Gill Stadium on Thanksgiving during the city football championship, aka the Turkey Bowl, a brief re-cap:
In the third quarter, with Trinity leading 38-8 and Central starting to show its frustration, a fight broke out among opposing players along the Trinity sideline. Some spectators not directly involved in the game attempted to join the fray. Trinity coaches and administrators intervened. Little Green coach Ryan Ray pulled his starters, Trinity went on to win 52-8, and Central subsequently suspended five of its players.
Like Mailloux, Central principal Ronald Mailhot believes that's now all behind the two schools.
"What happened on Thanksgiving was an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of event," Mailhot said. "I'm convinced the coaches and players are not going to tolerate more of what we saw in the Turkey Bowl."
Just in case, school officials arranged to have three referees assigned to the event, rather than go with the tandem officiating normally used for regular-season games. To monitor what's going on around the court, Trinity hired an extra officer to work the police detail and asked staff and administrators to be on high alert.
Mailhot won't be at the boys' game — he'll be at Central dividing his time between two other big events: the school's annual chorus and jazz holiday concert, and the girls' basketball game between the Pioneers and Little Green — but two of his assistant principals will be.
The pieces appear to be in place to make this a memorable night — for all the right reasons.
"A lot of these boys have been friends for many years," Mailhot said. "We want them to have a lot of fun playing a game they may be talking about for many years to come."
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.