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Lower Merion basketball team reaches new heights in New Hampshire, Maine

(Note: The author of this article, Lower Merion senior Sam Oshtry, is a member of the Aces’ varsity basketball team.)

One of the highlights of playing varsity basketball at Lower Merion is being part of something bigger than the game. It’s an experience that goes way beyond the court and has helped me see the world in different ways. From community service to college visits to conversations about current events, my teammates and I have done so much together and it all has helped bring us closer as a family.

This past summer, we participated in one of the biggest and best Aces traditions — the “big trip.” Over the years, LM teams have traveled to places like Hawaii, Yosemite National Park and Arizona’s Navajo Indian Reservation to explore the world beyond the Main Line.

This year’s trip — to New Hampshire and Maine — is something we’d been looking forward to since arriving at LM, especially after hearing stories from alumni about how the LM trip still is one of the most fun and memorable experiences of their lives.

In early August, nine Aces players (Theo Henry, Sam Oshtry, Steve Payne, Garrett Ryan, Julian Hairston, Shareef Jones, Seth Needle, Matt O’Connor and Josh Martin) and three coaches (Doug Young, Justin McFadden, Harley Williamson) boarded a plane from Philly to Boston for the start of our travels together.

After a three-hour ride north from Logan Airport and a quick stop for breakfast, our first adventure was a five-mile hike up the Gale River Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. We disengaged from our cell phones and enjoyed the scenery, going in and out of conversations and playing different games along the way.

By the end of the trail, the views started to open up and we were able to see far down into the valleys below. After a final climb, we arrived at a clearing and dropped our bags to check out our amazing surroundings. Mountain peaks above us, forested valleys below and a small, stone building that would be our home for the night — the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut.

The hut had bunk beds and no showers or electricity — definitely different than what we are accustomed to back home.

After a family-style dinner with other people who were staying overnight, including some Appalachian Trail thru-hikers making the trip from Georgia to Maine, we played some Monopoly, gazed up at the night sky filled with countless stars and then went to bed. (Some of us had to climb to bed, as the bunks were stacked four-high).

The next morning, we hiked almost straight uphill for about a mile to the summit of South Twin Mountain, which featured a spectacular 360-degree view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and surrounding peaks, like Mount Washington — the tallest mountain in the northeast. The views had everyone taking out their cameras to capture the moment.

We then began the long hike back down to our van, which took about five hours, but didn’t feel like it as everyone was constantly in conversation and playing games like “20 questions.”

After completing the hike, we got in our cars and took a long drive to a destination that was unknown to the players. Our coaches had been telling us that it would be another night of no electricity or showers, which we weren’t looking forward to given the smell in the van after two days of hiking. We crossed the state line into Maine and drove for hours without much sign of civilization. But when we arrived at our destination, we discovered it was a beautiful, huge cabin on a lake and all of us immediately ran down to the dock and jumped in the water. That night we barbecued for dinner, built a campfire and engaged in a deep, personal conversation as a group, which we continued to do for the remaining nights on the trip.

The following day, we went whitewater rafting in the Class 4 rapids of the Kennebec River. Right from the start, the rapids were intense. At one point, we hit a big wave and our raft went flying into the air. When we came down, Matt was was no longer in the raft. As soon as we noticed he was in the water, we all hurried over to the side of the raft in an attempt to pull him back in.

However, our rescue plan did not go as intended. While scurrying to save Matt, three others (myself included) ended up going overboard for a swim. Eventually, we were all pulled back onto the raft with smiles from ear to ear, taking in the excitement of the last few minutes and realizing how special it was to be with this group in this type of environment. The consensus was that this was our favorite activity of the whole trip.

That afternoon we returned to the house and a bunch of us decided to play a board game. We agreed on Monopoly, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. What followed was a five-hour-plus Monopoly marathon that at times was intense and feisty. We all discovered that our competitiveness does not just lie on the basketball court.

During the following days, we took part in a strenuous hike up Borestone Mountain which was more than worth the effort given the incredible views into Maine’s 100-mile wilderness. We went swimming and fishing at Houston Brook Falls, where a few of us stood under the full force of one of Maine’s tallest waterfalls. We then said our goodbyes to the comforts of the lake house and headed to the coast and Acadia National Park to try something none of us had done before — rock climbing.

Our nerves were on edge as we strapped on our harnesses and started walking to the steep, oceanside cliffs we would be climbing. Not only would we be scaling these walls, we learned that we would be controlling each others’ ropes as we climbed, rather than depending on the guides.

It was the ultimate trust exercise. We all needed to trust our teammates to be there for us and to be laser-focused in case something went wrong. Most of us were hesitant at first, but after climbing a couple of the cliffs, the comfort level throughout the group grew and soon we were conquering rock climbing.

We capped our climbing with a quick and cold swim in the ocean at Sand Beach in Acadia. That evening, we found a campground and set up tents — a much harder task than we had anticipated. We made a visit to the town of Bar Harbor, where we ate dinner and walked around before returning to our tents and sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning, we packed up and returned to Acadia for one last hike. The Beehive Trail was not very long, but it had some fun, steep climbs and great views of the ocean, mountains and islands of coastal Maine. Many in the group called it their favorite hike of the trip.

We then took off down the coast to Old Quarry Adventures in Stonington for one last outdoor adventure — an overnight sea kayak trip. We got outfitted into two-person kayaks, had a brief demonstration of how to safely operate a kayak and set a course for an island off the coast, where we would camp for the second straight night.

Being out there in the ocean with the sun shining down, lobster buoys bobbing around us, cruising alongside sailboats and fishing boats, and just taking in the rugged Maine coast scenery is something that I won’t forget. We got into a rhythm with our paddling and in no time we had arrived at our private island and unloaded our gear. After setting up our tents (much easier the second go around), we went for another paddle, this time to a nearby island that had its own swimming hole in an old quarry. We took turns jumping from a cliff into the warm water, then returned back to our campsite. Our guides cooked us a delicious dinner and even though it began to rain, we did a little more exploring before clocking in for the night.

The next morning we kayaked a bit more, this time in light mist and fog, and headed back to shore where the staff at Old Quarry Adventures prepared us a lobster meal. It was the first lobster that many of us had ever eaten and as expected, there were mixed reactions about the idea of eating a lobster that we had seen alive 15 minutes earlier. From there, we took off for perhaps our most luxurious stay of the trip — a Best Western motel — on our last night of the trip. It felt great to get a hot shower and sleep in a real bed.

The final morning, we woke up with excitement knowing we would finally be playing basketball after being away from the game for the entire week. We played at Bridgton Academy against a collection of high level players from both New Hampshire and Maine. We all felt back in our element again when we started to play and it was easy to tell that the bonding from the trip helped us on the court. Everyone was pulling for each other, playing hard and enjoying the moment. It was a fitting conclusion to an unforgettable adventure.

On the trip many of us tried things that we would never have imagined doing just a week earlier. The whole experience opened our eyes and made us realize the power of exploring and testing our limits. One of the major themes we talked about during the trip was how easy it was for us to ditch our cellphones and forget about everything going on back home. This was partly because we rarely had any decent service, but mainly because we were just enjoying each others’ company too much to focus on anything else. It felt good to get away from technology and just be in the present.

It was also really great to spend time with alumni like Justin and Harley, who were fantastic leaders and mentors throughout the trip. Both Justin (who’s headed to serve in the Peace Corps next month) and Harley (who runs his own mattress company, Allure Sleep) gave so much to Lower Merion basketball during their high school careers and have continued to give back after graduating college by volunteering their time, imparting their wisdom and knowledge to the current Aces.

The trip would not have happened without the hard work and hours of planning that Doug Young devoted so that we could all have a once-in-a-lifetime experience and enhance the special bond that we share as Aces. It’s a bond that will never be broken. We are grateful to everyone who helped make our trip possible through their generosity and support. It definitely took a lot of fundraising and planning.

There are numerous ways to improve a basketball team in the hopes of achieving the ultimate goal, a championship. For our team, that has meant being taken out of our comfort zone, having new experiences, being challenged in ways that we never thought possible. Being together in New England will no doubt make us a more cohesive unit. We’re also pretty confident that there’s nothing that could be thrown our way that we can’t handle as players, students and teammates. That’s what Aces basketball is all about: supporting one another, pushing our limits and doing it all together— as a family.

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