LEOMINSTER — Were it a concert, it would have been akin to a band opening with its greatest hit.
No slow build. No anticipation. Just straight to the one everyone in the building knows and loves.
When Leominster High and Fitchburg High took to the court in Leominster Friday night for a basketball game between historic rivals, it was an event the packed house was more than ready for. It was the first contest held at Leominster High School since the MIAA lifted its capacity restrictions for indoor sporting events.
“What better way to welcome everyone back than with a game like this? Having Fitchburg here for this is fantastic,” Leominster athletic director David Palazzi said as the Blue Devils and Red Raiders tangled on the hardwood in a contest won in overtime by the hosts, 44-41.
And about that hardwood. … It was part of the night’s story, as well.
Leominster’s clash with its storied rival came as the athletic department shined the spotlight directly on the court, which had undergone renovations, as had the rest of the gymnasium. New padding along the court’s baseline wall, new hoops and reimagined Blue Devils imagery on the doors to the gym were among the highlights.
“All of the staff here, from the superintendent to the facilities manager to the custodial services, they take pride in it and they put a lot of money into the gym,” Palazzi said. “Everyone involved with it is thrilled with how it looks. It’s fantastic.”
The action on the court was just as outstanding as the atmosphere, which saw large student sections from each school very vocally cheering their respective sides on.
In a defensively-focused game that was close throughout, the Blue Devils prevailed in overtime. Justin Dadah paced the Blue Devils (7-1) with 26 points as the lone Leominster player to reach double figures.
Likewise, Nico Caputi was the only Red Raider to reach double digits, scoring 12 points to lead Fitchburg (5-7).
Palazzi noted that while the vast majority of football followers at Leominster High root for the Patriots, there will likely be quite a contingent backing the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game on Sunday.
It’s not often the Blue Devils faithful get to cheer on one of their own with a shot at the Super Bowl on the line. That’s what class of 2017 member Noah Gray has when he and the Chiefs square off with the Cincinnati Bengals in the conference title game.
“We’re proud of him. I’m proud of the person he is,” Palazzi said. “The special needs kids at the high school really look up to him and Noah still texts a lot of those kids in that room. That’s what he’s all about; he’s a great athlete but an even better person.”
Palazzi coached Gray on the gridiron while the now-NFL rookie was a standout quarterback and later tight end for the Blue Devils.
“You can’t ask for anything more than a kid like that representing Leominster High School and everything we’re about,” Palazzi said. “It would be amazing to see a kid like Noah in the Super Bowl.”