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St. Thomas More, Putnam Science: the best of enemies

Montville – The words of Mike Krzyzewski: "Great rivalries don't have to be built on hatred. They're built on respect, on a respect for excellence."

Maybe that's what this was really about Friday night, despite all the counterintuitive evidence. Rivalries spawn from nowhere sometimes, even here, the relative middle of nowhere for competitive basketball, where all these future college players gathered around the woods of Gardner Lake for the best game our corner of the world will see all year.

The very real and festering rivalry between the old money (St. Thomas More) and new money (Putnam Science Academy) of prep school basketball played another rendition, this one with spasms of hollering, rhubarbs, flare-ups and dust-ups, belying the nominal five-dollar donation at the door for the few invited in to watch.

Jere Quinn, St. Thomas More's 40-year coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame nominee, had a fastball befitting a younger man, illustrating that it hasn't lost an inch, not all these years later, not when perceived injustice infiltrates the court bearing his name.

You want rivalry? There was Quinn begging, cajoling and lambasting the officials to constrain the excitable assistant coaches of Putnam Science, who spent varying parts of the game hopping off the bench. It sure looked as though the plan was get under Quinn's skin.

"I know he was intense and yelling and stuff," Putnam Science coach Tom Espinosa said. "I wasn't really paying attention. I know he was upset. He's an intense guy. He wants his kids to play hard and wants to win."

Quinn: "You guys heard me screaming at the officials. This is an NCAA game. One coach is allowed to stand up. When I see my (assistants) up, I say 'you need to sit down.' Did I stretch that for a couple years? Yeah, when I had Matt (Quinn, Jere's son, now STM's head of school) as an assistant.

"But honestly, you've got to have them sit. I think it hurts the continuity of the game. It hurts the officiating. I think it riles the kids up. That being said, (the Putnam Science) kids played really hard, forced us into 23 turnovers. I don't think our guards were prepared for the intensity their defensive stuff brought. Tom has always gotten those kids to play hard.

"I just think that when you are coaching a game, you shouldn't have to deal with an assistant coach grinning at you, smiling at you, pointing at you. It's an official's job to interject."

The venom may have been deeper than simply the circumstances of the game. Putnam Science's best player, Desmond Claude, on the radar of every major college program, left St. Thomas More for Putnam Science after last season. Quinn wasn't giving details. But put it this way: Quinn described Friday's game as "a Patriot League team trying to beat a Big East team." Some of us in the stands called it Princeton vs. Kentucky. Perhaps if T-More still had Claude — some say he's headed to Kansas — the Patriot League references would be flawed.

"(Claude's) parents sent out an e-mail to multiple schools and right when I got it, the first thing I did was send it to Jere," Espinosa said. "Other schools did the same thing. Everyone respects Jere. He's the God of prep school basketball to be honest. I told Jere that (Claude) is going to come up on a visit. Jere said 'let me know if I can help.' (Leaving St. Thomas More) doesn't happen a lot, but at the same time it's happened to us a lot."

The walls of Quinn's office are adorned much like the rafters of the old Boston Garden: promenades through history. Quinn has sent players to every major program in the country. He has won a national championship and several New England championships. He is indeed the God of prep school basketball.

But now he can't get the same players Putnam Science does.

"They have higher level players than we do. It's like a 12 vs. 5 game in the NCAA tournament," Quinn said. "It's finance. We're a tuition-based school. We're always going to be. We've never offered anyone a full scholarship to come to St. Thomas More."

That is perhaps why Quinn described T-More vs. Putnam Science this way: "It's an interstate rivalry, night and day the way we go about our business. We teach our kids to play. They like to get in you. They're more of an inner city kind of thing and we're more of a European kind of thing."

Lest you think the advantage in talent made the win ordinary for undefeated Putnam Science, here is Espinosa: "Road games are always tough, but there's nothing like coming here. Jere always has his teams playing as hard as they can. This is the toughest place to play."

Quinn was back to himself quickly after the game ended. That's the benefit of 40 years and more than 1,000 wins. The sun comes up the next day and you work to get better.

"I remember when these guys got going, we did everything in our power to help them," Quinn said of Putnam Science. "I reached out to everybody. 'Play Tom, he's a good guy.' It still 'play Tom he's a good guy.' But everybody who knows me knows I'm going to work every angle I can. I'm going to work the kids and the officials. I've been doing this for a while. Then when the game ends, it ends. I have a short memory with the kids. With the officials, I say 'thank you.'"

And with that, Jere Quinn was off to get a postgame lemonade. Tom Espinosa was headed to 395 North. Their rivalry, borne of a respect for excellence, rolls into next week and beyond. A rivalry from nowhere in the middle of nowhere that sure is fun to watch.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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