BENNINGTON — Minutes after Saturday's thrilling and exhausting double-overtime loss to Burlington, Mount Anthony boys basketball coach Dan Sleeman received a text.
"I was just [drained], I can't even talk and I'm feeling like crap and I get a message," Sleeman said. "I said, 'Who is this texting me?' It was one of our [support staff] guys, saying it's the best thing he'd ever been a part of. Even the people who don't wear the uniform, it affects them. That makes you think — we affect a lot of people."
It's those bonds with everyone involved with the Mount Anthony program that is a major reason why the Patriots are flying high at 7-1, second in the Division I rankings.
"It definitely ranks up near the top with the best groups I've had," said Sleeman, in his 15th season at MAU. "It's so much more than games. We have team breakfasts on the weekend, we'll scout together. Last week, we had a late practice and they asked if I was going home. I wasn't, so they came down into the basketball office to watch video. I see them more than my family, and when you're winning and the chemistry is good, you want the time to go slow."
Things are going well for the Patriots nearly halfway into the season. They've averaged nearly 77 points a game and have only allowed 53 points a game, starting the year as fast as they have.
"I was ready to talk about it if I sensed problems [early on], but I decided less would be better, let's get started and see what's going on," Sleeman said. "From Day 1, I saw the good vibe and energy. The high fives on the side or encouragement after making an extra pass. I've had teams that aren't like that, this group is the opposite, it's one of the most close-knit groups I've ever had, even my other coaches have felt that way."
Senior captain Tyler Champagne chalks it up to being a part of the brotherhood.
"The key to family are things like the team breakfasts and definitely the bus rides," Champagne said. "The team breakfasts are kind of a tradition, usually on the weekend before Saturday games. Usually we pick a restaurant, last week we had it at [Coach Andy Anderson's] house."
Champagne said the team has come together, especially on the long bus rides.
"We have a speaker on the bus, so we sing, have rap battles on the bus," Champagne said. "We've even had heart-to-heart [talks]. Every little thing we do brings us together more and more.
Seniors Jonas and Josh Parker arrived at Mount Anthony from bigger schools in downstate New York, but each has assimilated to southern Vermont and MAU quickly.
"I thought people might be nervous or hesitant with them [at first], but they fit right in," Champagne said. "I was the first one they got to meet and hang out with, I introduced them to everybody. They've jelled so easy with everyone."
On the court, Jonas Parker is the leading scorer, averaging more than 20 points a game, while brother Josh has had a couple of his best games most recently coming off the bench.
"I even hear about them in my classes," said Sleeman, a driver's education teacher at MAUHS. "I'll hear someone who's not affiliated with sports say they are really nice. That's part of their upbringing and their parents doing a good job with them. The first thing I hear, besides how tall Jonas is, is what a nice kid. That's exactly what we're seeing, no one came in with a big ego."
The Patriots can't rest on its laurels. They have a ton of big-time games left, including Wednesday at Hoosick Falls, Friday hosting Burr and Burton Academy, Rice on Jan. 16 on the road and Rutland twice in a week at the end of January and beginning of February as Marble Valley League play winds down.
"We have the physical tools, and I don't like to look ahead, we have a tough game on Wednesday," Sleeman said. "Today was the first practice that was a walkthrough, we needed a day. We'll be ready to go."