Falcons make an escape to New York

Here's a few facts about New York that are not common knowledge.

• It is possible to buy 10 "I Love New York" T-shirts for $6.

• Downtown Seattle would hardly make an impressive block of buildings in Manhattan.

• There is no tourist season; it's always tourist season.

• The best adjective with which to describe how the state's high school basketball teams play is "scrappy."

All these observations on New York City and its surrounding suburbs come courtesy of the South Whidbey High School boys basketball team. Back on the island this week after a five-day trip to New York between Dec. 26 and the start of the new year, 11 boys on the team are telling plenty of stories about a trip that included two varsity games against Empire State teams.

But in talking to the Falcon boys, those games get lost in a lot of other stories. Though the contests were nailbiters -- the first against Carle Place High School came down to a winning 3-pointer by Travis Tornga and the second against East Rockaway was almost a dead heat until the fourth quarter -- the best moments on the trip came out of what happened off the court.

Hosted by basketball families in East Rockaway for three of five nights of traveling, the South Whidbey boys have more to say touring Times Square and getting to know host players than playing basketball. One story in particular will probably live on in team lore well beyond this year. Just hours after getting into East Rockaway after a long day of flying, the boys split up to go to their host homes.

Senior player Bill Schneeman got a big surprise at his assigned home when he walked into the kitchen to find 15 high school girls having a pizza party.

At 6 feet 8 inches, he was the tallest person in the room and had nowhere to hide from the girls, who were expecting him.

"They said 'Hi, Bill,'" Schneeman said Monday with a look of embarrassment on his face.

His only comment on the party has become a catch phrase among his teammates.

"The pizza was good," he said.

His teammates were equally distracted. After the Falcons beat Carle Place 66-63 and East Rockaway 57-49, they took two days for sightseeing in the city. Junior Nick Plastino had almost nothing to say about playing the short but physical New York competition, but everything to say about the nation's largest metropolis.

"The city itself was so amazing," he said this week.

Brandon Adams, another senior on the team, clarified that thought.

"Everything was so much bigger than Seattle," he said. "It seems like a block in New York."

While Adams' best New York moment came during the Carle Place game, when he drew double coverage with nine seconds to go, then dished a pass off to Tornga for the game-winner, it was a different basketball game that enthralled the rest of his teammates.

Thanks to a connection made by Falcon assistant coach John Kipling -- who is an East Rockaway native -- the team received 15 free tickets to a New York Knicks-San Antonio Spurs game at Madison Square Garden.

Junior Kyle McGillen said his night at the Garden is the one thing he will always remember about a trip he would gladly take again.

"It was a great experience," he said.

Other highlights included a visit to the Museum of Natural History, rides between East Rockaway and New York on a commuter train, and a two-day search conducted by the team's players for the best deal on "I Love New York" T-shirts.

On top of all that, the trip was a cultural experience. Several team members said they had trouble getting used to New York accents and the liberal use of two words previously unknown to most of them: "scumbag" and "dirtbag."

In their host homes, the Falcons also found what living in a dense urban community means for its residents.

Tornga said he didn't think his lifestyle would fit, literally, into the small, 1930s-era East Rockaway homes.

"There's just so much stuff they have to go without because there's so little space," he said.

Andy Davis, the team's head coach, had his own cultural experience. While taking a walk with his wife, he found himself disoriented and lost in a grid of streets and houses that seemed more like a maze than a neighborhood.

"That made a 30-minute walk a lot longer than we had planned," he said.

The team's trip was made possible by Coach Kipling, who arranged the Falcons' two New York games with an old friend who happened to be East Rockaway's coach. Team members paid for much of the trip themselves out of their pockets and through fund-raisers. Several South Whidbey businesses also chipped in money.

The trip was approved by high school administration and the South Whidbey Board of Education.

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