The Buck (Doesn't) Stop Here

Eras end in all kinds of ways, with bangs and whimpers ... and haircuts. That's the way the Heather Buck era ended at Stonington High School, at least symbolically. “I always said that after the last game, I'd cut them,” Buck says, referring to her trademark tresses. A week ago today, less than 24 hours after the Bears fell to East Lyme in the quarterfinals of the state Class L tournament, she kept that promise, which she'd made to no one in particular.

A stylist at a mall salon severed the 6-foot-4 Buck's French braids, separating her from 16 inches of hair she would donate to the Locks of Love organization.

“I still have enough for a pony tail,” Buck points out.

“It's the end of an era,” observes her mother, Mayada Wadsworth, who braided her daughter's hair in a pregame ritual that had endured since her freshman year.

For Buck, who will join coach Geno Auriemma's crew at the University of Connecticut in the fall, the finality of her team's season-ending loss is still hitting home. Back at school Monday, she encountered teammates, their schedules suddenly less demanding than they'd been in months.

“I said, 'We're not going to practice today,' ” Buck says, recalling that the words seemed strange when she uttered them. The message, though, was a little welcome. Certainly different.

“I'm sad it's over,” she says of the Bear's 20-5 season. “I'm proud of what we accomplished. If you had said before the season that we'd win our (Eastern Connecticut Conference) division and a conference (tournament) title, I would have said maybe. But as we got into the season, we really came together. We had great chemistry, great desire, great determination.”

She awakens to the radio, 104.7 The Wolf. Classic rock.

It's 4:25 a.m. It's cold, it's dark. It is, after all, Feb. 9.

In less than 15 hours, Heather Buck will take the court at Stonington High, and lead her Bears against Windham. A victory could clinch a regular-season championship. Unless she's kidnapped, she's likely to score the 2,000th point of her career during the game.

But before then, if you please, a musical interlude.

As dawn breaks, Buck boards a coach bus for Boston with more than a score of her fellow students, including teammate Caroline Gosselin, all members of the Stonington High School Jazz Band and Jazz Combo. They're about to compete in the Berklee College of Music's 40th annual High School Jazz Festival.

At 5:40, the bus pulls away from the high school. By 7:15, it's negotiating downtown Boston, rolling to a stop in front of the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street at 7:22. Registration is at 8.

“I wanted to be early,” Katrina Gottlieb, the high school's director of instrumental music, says.

As the day unfolds, time is of the essence. Each band, each ensemble gets 18 minutes and not a second more to impress judges from the Berklee faculty. More than 3,000 students participate. All morning long, buses disgorge them and their instruments. They're from all six New England states as well as Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Stonington has been a regular at the Berklee festival for 25 years, missing in 2007 because of a storm. You don't have to qualify, says Gottlieb, who's in her second year at the school. “But,” she adds, “if you weren't up to it, you wouldn't come.”

Buck plays the string bass with both the 21-member jazz band and the six-member combo. She'd played the piano in the jazz band at Mystic Middle School, but the high school needed a bass player.

“She's so incredibly nice,” Gottlieb says of Buck. “She's a fabulous athlete, a top student and a wonderful musician. ... A lot of the kids here tend to be involved in everything, sports and music, so we're used to scheduling around them.”

When the Windham game, originally set for a Sunday, was switched to Saturday night, Gottlieb had to scramble. She polled the band members on whether they wanted to move up their performance times at the Berklee festival, and whether they'd want to leave early, forgoing an awards ceremony at the end of the day's competition.

Overwhelmingly, the students voted to accommodate Buck and Gosselin.

The combo competes first. Buck is joined by fellow seniors Jacob Rathbun, the trumpeter who leads the group, and Gosselin, who plays the piano; junior Matt Morin, percussion; and sophomores Molly Rathbun, Jacob's sister, on tenor saxophone and Ryan Kalinowski on bari sax. Four Berklee faculty members seated at tables in the back of the room listen intently.

The group plays three selections, highlighted by Jacob Rathbun's solo at the beginning of the last, “There Will Never Be Another You.” Suzanna Sifter, an associate professor in Berklee's piano department, delivers an instant critique that includes praise for Rathbun, who wins the judges' award.

“We've been together as a combo for two years now. We rehearse during lunch period,” Rathbun says afterward. “I thought we did pretty good. With jazz, you never know what's going to happen. It's all on the fly. It's like you and I talking ...”

“He plays trumpet the way I play basketball,” Buck says later of Rathbun.

Looking back, she's tough on herself. She says she gets far more nervous before a musical performance than before a game.

“For some reason, Caroline (Gosselin) and I just weren't getting together,” Buck says. “It was just really weird. ... I wanted to say, 'Can we just play that again — we can do better'.”

Shortly after the combo's performance, the entire jazz band files into a larger room, where, under Gottlieb's direction, it plays for four more judges.

After the band completes its three selections, Brian Lewis, an associate professor, compliments Gottlieb and the group on the choice of material and direction. He commends the brass section and, in particular, Rathbun, who would win second place in the festival's individual musicianship category.

A festival official advises Gottlieb that the band came within seconds of violating the 18-minute limit, which would have meant disqualification.

It's not noon yet, but it's time to get back on the bus.

“I'm running on adrenaline,” Gosselin says.

Amid bright sunshine, the bus departs at 12:05. The DVD of “Casino Royale,” a James Bond movie, picks up where it left off on the way to Boston, and some nourishment gets passed around.

For the benefit of a photographer, someone calls out, “Take a picture of Heather eating pizza. She eats, too.”

In Rhode Island, the sunshine gives way to snow squalls. The pavement's wet when the bus draws to the curb back at the high school. It's 1:50.

Buck and Gosselin have several hours to nap before they pursue their next extracurricular activity. Buck's got history to make. Cue the band.
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