Jaywalking: Are Cage days running down?

Monday, February 26, 2018

The current edition of “Berkshire Magazine” features a story that asks, “Are ‘Cage Dreams’ ending?”

The story speaks about the years-long fear that the future of UMass-Amherst’s Curry Hicks Cage hosting MIAA Western Massachusetts Basketball Tournaments is uncertain. Hmmmm? First I heard of it this winter.

The rumor arose four or five years ago when UMass announced construction on the now-completed Champions Center, which is the state-of-the-art practice facility for UMass’ men’s and women’s basketball teams. The new facility supposedly helps lure talented players to help the programs compete on the national stage. The UMass men are currently 11-18 overall and 4-12 in their Atlantic 10 Conference. Call it an ongoing project.

But I digress. The problem facing WMass high school basketball teams is that the Champions Center has made the Cage all but obsolete at the university. And if you noticed, the university also seems to jump at any and every opportunity to host construction projects on campus, not to mention that the Cage’s central location qualifies it as prime real estate. That could make the Cage’s future a bit bleak.

Daily Hampshire Gazette sports writer Matt Vautour wrote an article four years ago that laid this scenario out and also asked the question about the future of the building and the WMass Basketball Tournament being run at it. It’s a question that has sort of lingered every year at this time, although now that the Champions Center is complete, it carries a bit more weight.

Which led to the “Berkshire Magazine” story, and thus led me to calling WMass Basketball Tournament Director Lou Conte Monday.

“The rumor hasn’t really surfaced,” he said, when asked if he had heard anything recently.

We spoke for a few minutes and Conte agreed that it would be a shame if the day comes that the building can no longer host the WMass semifinals and finals. He said that in a perfect world he could pick up the venue and move it to “the birthplace of basketball” in Springfield and continue using it for years to come.

“The kids love going there,” he said. “It’s a great venue for our tournament.”


The 4,058 seat arena is as cool a facility as any used for any other WMass tournament. I was unable to pin down the exact year, but WMass tournament games began being played at the Cage in the 1930’s. The current setup began with girls’ games in the 1990s, when boys’ games remained at the Springfield Civic Center. UMass stopped using the arena as its home court for men’s and women’s basketball in 1993 when the Mullins Center opened.

In my 11 years, I have covered a lot of postseason events and I don’t know that any place has the same feel. The arena is a nice size for the crowds that high school postseason games attract. Sure, it’s not the new-age Mullins Center. But while a thousand or two fans rock the Cage, the same attendance produces a Mullins Center echo chamber. It’s the same for football games played at Gillette Stadium. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play on the New England Patriots field, and the MIAA is fortunate to be able to use it, but there is no intimacy like that of the Cage, where fans are just as close to the action as they are in high school gyms.

There are other great aspects about the facility. It is as closely located to the central part of the Pioneer Valley that it makes for a manageable trip for fans from all areas. Another great aspect is that the student sections are behind the hoops, which give a special edge to teams who can pack it.

The only downside about the Cage is that some coaches worry that many players look at reaching the Cage as the end goal of the season. Rather than winning a WMass title, it’s about playing at the Cage.

So yes, this could be the last year that the WMass Basketball Tournaments take place at Curry Hicks, just as last year and the years before that could have been the last tango. It’s likely to end some day, and the answer is not likely to be the overpriced Mullins Center, but rather Western New England University, which now houses both the Division I and Division II semifinals.

Here’s hoping area basketball fans have a few reasons to head down to Amherst next week and take in a game or two.

I spoke to Greenfield track & field coach Stu Elliot last week and he informed me to keep a close eye on the America East Indoor Track & Field Championships over the past weekend because two of his former pole vaulters were taking part for UMass-Lowell.

Sure enough, senior Vlad Popusoi cruised to a win in the pole vault, clearing 16 feet, 2¾ inches to win. Popusoi, who entered the competition at 15-3, cleared 15-3, 15-9 and 16-2¾ on his first attempt at each height. Having already won the event, Popusoi then took a stab at 17 feet, but fell short of clearing the height.

Younger brother Silvian Popusoi, a UMass-Lowell freshman, finished 11th at 13-9¼.

Congratulations to Sunderland’s G.P. Gromacki and his Amherst College women’s basketball team’s third consecutive New England Small College Athletic Conference championship following Sunday’s 44-40 victory over Tufts.

The Mammoths improved to a perfect 27-0 on the season and appear poised to defend last year’s NCAA Division III National Championship. Since Gromacki, a South Deerfield native, took over in 2007, Amherst has won six NESCAC championships and a pair of national titles.

Amherst will host a four-team regional this weekend at LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst. UMass-Boston and St. Joseph’s College will play Friday at 5, while Amherst will host Becker in the nightcap at 7. The winners will then meet Saturday at 6.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.