MANHATTAN – It was a day of firsts for the Erie Red Devils on March 12.
Full of adrenaline in front of Erie fans, Matthew Vail used the pick in an effort to see what the best play was for him. Dawson Lehman caught crisp passes before determining if he should shoot the 3. And 6’5” Eric Dillinger caught the ball in the post, reverse-pivoted and lifted himself up off the floor in an attempt to shoot over the outstretched fingertips of 6’6” Tyus Wilson – Sterling High School’s All-League and best player.
In most instances, the only concern was whether or not the basketball went in for a basket.
But on a deeper level, this was a unique situation.
Erie’s Red Devils were center stage in the 2A first round of the state playoffs for the first time since 1993. And the team was playing in Manhattan at the Bramlage Coliseum, a Division-I arena that’s home to the Kansas State Wildcats.
This was the first time these Erie basketball players participated in live action on a D-I floor, though the entire team practiced at Pittsburg State the day before in preparation for the opportunity.
“That was really, really big,” Erie head coach Nick Pfeifer said. “I think it really helped us and just the sense of the floor, the size of it and those things. We were pretty comfortable in that regard...”
Having Erie’s best player ready to compete on the new floor is a huge key to how the team would eventually play overall. And Vail, a 2020 All-Tri-Valley League senior guard and the Red Devil’s top go-to guy, would go on to score 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting. He said the differences on the court – an 84-foot high school court as opposed to a 94-foot college court – were noticeable.
“Bigger atmosphere, and the goals seem like they’re a lot farther away than what they truly are because of the height of the ceiling. It’s just a lot of features in it that you have to get used to,” Vail said. “Since we played at Pitt State last night, I was kind of expecting it, but it was a little bit different than Pitt State because of how much bigger it truly is.”
For post player Dillinger – a sophomore who scored nine points and snatched down eight rebounds in the game – the size of the court made him adjust his energy level throughout the game.
“High school court is a lot smaller, so I can use a lot more energy. On Division I courts, you have to save up a little till the end...,” Dillinger said. “It’s really cool. The courts I usually play on are little tiny high school courts. I really never played on a 20,000-person court.”
Relying on game planning, screening and the basic instinct of knowing how to find space on the floor for open shots, Lehman, a junior perimeter player, soaked in his experience of playing on a D-I basketball court.
“It was amazing. Not a lot of people can do that in their high school career, and I’m the one that got to,” Lehman said. “It was definitely a great feeling and I’ll remember it forever.”
Lehman scored 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting and brought down seven boards after fighting through screens and jockeying for court position.
Pfeifer had the best view in the house of his student-athletes playing in a historical game for Erie High School, and he highlighted the importance of all the athletes and fans involved, despite eventually falling short 64-54 to Sterling in the first round and ending the year with a 19-5 record – Erie’s best in at least a decade and a half.
“It is fun and it is a good atmosphere and we brought such a great crowd and we had so much tremendous community support, and our parents were phenomenal throughout the year. So it’s fun to bring those guys along and have that behind you,” Pfeifer said.