By Tris Wykes

LEBANON – Five practices down for the Lebanon High boys basketball team. Six weeks remaining before the Raiders are scheduled to begin the regular season against visiting Mascoma on Jan. 19.

That’s a long slog for any team of teenagers. In the Covid-19 world, however, Lebanon’s players in particular have learned not to take anything for granted. 

Lebanon High’s Nyeoti Punni drives against Chris Perriello. Coach Kieth Matte is at left.

The Raiders were set to play in the NHIAA Division II quarterfinals last March when virus concerns ended the season. Lebanon’s girls basketball team had its campaign cut off before playing in the division title game. Spring sports were wiped out and then came football season, when Lebanon’s undefeated gridiron squad was shut down prior to the semifinals.

Friday, Lebanon’s school district announced its return to a hybrid attendance model, prompted by positive Covid tests and resulting quarantine among middle and high school students and staff.

It all adds up to a sense that if you’re fortunate enough to compete in any way, you’re playing with house money.

“There’s definitely more of an emphasis on fun than we would normally have at this point,” said 23rd-year coach Kieth Matte, who has cut back on pure conditioning drills and instead focused on ball-based play.

“These kids have lost enough, so we’re going to have fun and get real serious if and when the (playoffs) roll around.”

Senior basketball forward Calvin Bates, a football co-captain, recalls driving home from school the day after the football season was ended. He didn’t immediately exit the car. 

Lebanon High’s Cole Fabry and the ball are surrounded by, from left, Braeden Falzarano, Jack Stone and Logan Sanchez.

“Some tears were shed,” said Bates, a three-sport athlete. “It took a toll on me emotionally. Fingers crossed that we can play this season out, because we’re hoping to get a championship not only for last basketball season, but for football, too.”

That’s a bold goal given that Lebanon lost eight seniors to graduation earlier this season. Gone are four starters in guards Logan Falzarano and Jon Willeman (now playing at UNH) and forwards Wade Rainey and Caleb Smith. 

Junior swingman Jack Stone (6-feet-2) is a star in the making, but senior guard Karsten Hansen (6-1) is coming off knee surgery and backcourt mate and junior Braeden Falzarano (6-1) had hip surgery that ended his sophomore campaign. 

Bates (6-3) and junior Nyeoti Punni (6-1) give the Raiders two more athletic forwards, although Matte said the latter’s athleticism and physicality might have him playing under the hoop. Junior Cameron Davio (6-2) is raw but the football lineman could be a rebounding force and gives his team a banger to answer those on opposing squads.

“We’ve got pieces but it’s a puzzle,” said Matte, noting that he usually identifies his starters well in advance. “We have a lot of guys who are skilled, with good length and no definitive position. We’ll start our best four players and the fifth will be whoever plays the best defense.”

The extended preseason could allow unsung players to successfully audition for playing time and for Matte to take more of a teaching role. Without game preparation on the docket, skills can be developed in a setting resembling a summer basketball camp.

Lebanon High’s Cam Davio (24) and Nyeoti Punni (1) watch the ball while C.J. Childs, left, and Cole Fabry head back up court.

“This is an interesting team and I don’t know what’s going to happen to it,” Matte said. “I hope we get to play and I hope we get to have a tournament. As tough as it was what happened to our football team, it would have been 100 times worse for it to have not gotten to play at all. 

“I’m glad we’re getting an opportunity to try.”

Notes: Matte said his team features some of the smartest male students in the school, among them Bates, Hansen, Stone and Punni. “Believe me, I don’t always get that,” the coach said with a wry chuckle “Sometimes we’re loaded with rough riders, but I’m fortunate this year.”… Jacob Hebner, a starting football cornerback and the basketball team’s manager, was recently admitted to Michigan State and has applied to other Big 10 Conference schools… K.J. Matte, the coach’s son, is a senior at Maine’s Bowdoin College, where winter sports were canceled. He’s at home, taking courses remotely and assisting his father with the Raiders. Kieth Matte said his son might use his final year of NCAA eligibility at Norwich (Vt.) University, where his younger sister, Alexis, is a member of the women’s hoops squad… Keene is listed online as a Lebanon opponent in girls and boys basketball and ice hockey. However, the Blackbirds’ school board voted this week not to approve winter sports competition against other schools until the district’s students are attending in-person full time.

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Lebanon High boys basketball coach Kieth Matte.