PROVIDENCE — In the person of Carl LaBranche, the R.I. Interscholastic League and Providence College benefited from having an ace in the hole.
The underlying reason why PC’s venerable Alumni Hall gym is the site for Sunday’s “Elite Eight” round of the open state tournament is due to the communication and negotiating skills tapped by LaBranche in harmonizing this project. With this Pawtucket native (Tolman High School Class of 1970) serving as the point man, LaBranche’s vision of opening Alumni Hall’s doors to the state’s high school basketball sector became a reality.
“About a year ago, Tom [Mezzanotte, RIIL executive director] came to me and asked about doing an Elite Eight situation [on PC’s campus],” was LaBranche describing how the wheels were put in motion. “When we hired Eddie [Cooley, the Friars’ first-year basketball head coach who attended Central High], he had an understanding for the Interscholastic League, which helped.
“There hadn’t been a high school game at Alumni in close to 30 years when Mount Pleasant asked if they could play [Connecticut’s] New London here,” LeBranche went on about a contest that was highlighted by an appearance by future Friar Kris Dunn on Feb. 4. “To me, this was a no-brainer.”
Naturally, the feeling is mutual on the part of Interscholastic League officials.
“We’re thankful that Carl and the administration at PC are allowing us the opportunity,” assistant director Mike Lunney said. “We really wanted to make these particular games special for the kids and the parents who probably attended games at Alumni. It’s a great place to watch a game.”
TRUTH IS, LABRANCHE has a soft spot reserved in his heart for the RIIL – perhaps due to his extensive ties with the state’s governing body of high school athletics dating back to his competing days at Tolman. Presently, he works at PC as an associate athletic director specializing in facilities/game day management, this following a 16-year stint as the school’s head tennis coach.
LaBranche was a three-sport athlete for the Tigers, playing tennis and basketball for “Gentleman” Jim Donaldson Sr. while swimming under the direction of Rollie Pariseau. LaBranche’s children, Nicole and Kyle, proved to be chips off the old block, competing in multiple sports at Cumberland High.
The 1980s saw LaBranche serve as the head coach for the varsity swimming and tennis programs at Lincoln High. The one-time aquatics director of the Cumberland-Lincoln Boys & Girls Club also spent 30-plus years as a R.I. high school basketball official, in addition to refereeing on the college circuit.
“In 1987, the lone year I coached tennis at Lincoln, we won the Class A championship,” LaBranche noted. “Kyle played tennis at Cumberland and wrestled for Steve Gordon, while Nicole did field hockey, softball and basketball. She got 12 varsity letters!”
THE ONUS FELL on LaBranche to sell the idea of high school playoff games at Alumni Hall to Providence College president Rev. Brian J. Shanley and athletic director Bob Driscoll. The two high-ranking school officials quickly signed off and entrusted LaBranche to iron out all the particulars.
“From a public relations standpoint, the college should want the local kid, the sister or younger brother of the player, to see Providence College in the light it’s in now,” LaBranche said. “If we can introduce the new PC to another generation of kids who live close by to the school, but haven’t seen it, to me, that’s a great move.”
LaBranche was able to persuade Cooley and women’s basketball coach Phil Seymour to let the high school teams use their respective program’s locker rooms. All told, four lockers will be made available to the participating schools – a nice gesture that figures to enhance the overall game day experience.
“In the 90s, when I officiated a ton of high school games, you would have 3,000 people (attending the finals at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, formerly the Providence Civic Center). It was exciting, but the kids would miss their first nine shots and it looked like an empty building,” LaBranche said. “You put 2,200 in Alumni and you can produce a real good atmosphere.
“I just want it to be a good experience for the kids,” LaBranche went on.
Knowing that the RIIL will be supplying the police and fire presence, along with the ticket takers, LaBranche noted that PC “honored the college’s policy on rentals, but we gave them a reasonable rate to make some money. In the case of the Interscholastic League, they’re doing something positive for the kids in the state of Rhode Island 99.5 percent of time.”
FOR THOSE PLANNING to attend the games Sunday, LaBranche says parking on campus shouldn’t prove a hassle.
“Certainly, the hockey people who come [to Schneider Arena to view the boys’ and girls’ hockey title series] know the side streets. With it being a Sunday, fans can come in through the main gate on River Ave. and security is going to point them to lots behind the library,” LaBranche noted. “If patrons come in through the Huxley Ave. gate, security will direct them to the parking garage [located underneath the artificial turf field where the field hockey and lacrosse teams play their home games].”
There is another parking option, one that could create some nostalgia on the part of fans who remember seeing Friar games at Alumni Hall.
“If you don’t want to bother with either entrance, you can come in through the old entrance of Alumni Hall on Cumberland Street [by taking a left off Admiral Street]. There are commuter lots that are open on the weekend,” LaBranche described.
SUNDAY’S QUADUPLEHEADER – North Kingstown-Rogers kicks off the festivities at high noon, followed by Hope-Mount Pleasant (2:30 p.m.), North Providence-La Salle (5 p.m.), and Central-Classical (7:30 p.m.) – will serve as the final round of competitive games for the “old” Alumni Hall before the $4 million renovation project gets under way.
“We’re about to embark on one of the largest changes in facilities to bring some of the programs up to date,” LaBranche said, “but Alumni Hall still looks good and we’re hoping this is a great experience for the kids.”