SALEM, Va. -- Want a little insight into the rivalry between Amherst and Williams? Think the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, only add an additional 100 years. And instead it being about one player -- Babe Ruth -- as a focal point, this Division III bitterness revolves around one man's decision to leave one school to start his own.
When Zepheniah Swift Moore left his post as Williams’ president in 1821 to found Amherst Academy about 60 miles east, he fired up a conflict as intense as any in sports. Plus, the two schools might have the two best nicknames in all of college sports: the Lord Jeffs of Amherst and the Williams Ephs or Purple Cows.The Williams Ephs are named after Ephraim Williams, whose bequest led to its 1792 charter. Amherst -- the school and the town -- is named after Lord Jeffrey, a veteran of the Seven Years' War and later commanding general of the British forces in North America.
So their meeting in the DIII men's basketball semifinals has all the undertones of a classic Duke-North Carolina Tobacco Road duel. Exactly what you'd expect from two schools who play the “Biggest Little Game in America" on the gridiron every fall.
This will be the fourth time Amherst and Williams have met this season. And all three previous times, the Lord Jeffs have come out on top. In fact, Williams hasn't beaten Amherst since March 12, 2011, a stretch of eight consecutive games. And on top of that, Amherst is the defending DIII national champion.
“Trust me, we’re not overconfident,” said Dave Hixon, head coach at Amherst for the past 37 seasons. “I think we’re confident. I talked to the team (Wednesday), and I said, ‘Look, you know how to do it, or you wouldn’t be here. You’ve got to go down, just play, remember who we are and be confident in that.’ But I really don’t think this team is an overconfident team at all. I really don’t.”
But Williams does have some history on its side. In the 2004 DIII Final Four, held at the Salem Civic Center, Williams beat Amherst 86-81. In fact, Amherst has never beaten Williams in four previous tries in the NCAA tournament and overall, the Ephs lead the series 117-96 since their first meeting in 1901.
“I think the most important thing is just try not to let the outside distractions take away from the type of year that we’ve had and just concentrate on playing our best basketball,” said Williams head coach Mike Maker, who has led his team to a 27-4 record.
“If our best basketball is good enough, so be it. Either way, I’m really proud of what our team’s been able to accomplish. We have really good players, but the most important thing to me is they’re wonderful young men.”
Williams advanced to the Elite Eight last year, and has been in Final Four in three of the past five seasons. But this time, they’re up against Amherst.
It had to be Amherst.
“I don’t think anybody outside of Williamstown is picking us to win,” Maker said. “We’re the underdog. We’re going to try to relish that role as best we can. It’s really not about the rivalry or about Amherst. It’s about playing our best basketball, and playing to our strengths and being the best team we can be on that night. If we are, then we’ll advance and hopefully have the right to play for a national championship.”
Asked what those strengths are, Maker immediately pointed to his team's ability to score.
“We can pass and shoot as well as anybody in the United States, I think,” Maker said. “Our challenge has been defensively has been guarding dribble penetration and rebounding the basketball. We’ve made group strides in that area, and because of that, we’re still playing.”
Amherst prides itself on its ability to put points on the board, thanks to two key players. Forward David George has come on strong in relief of sophomore Ben Pollack, who damaged his ACL a month or so ago. Senior Aaron Toomey has also rewritten the Lord Jeffs’ record book this year. He’s now the school’s all-time leading scorer and the first to top the 2,000-point plateau. He’s also tops in free throw and 3-pointers.
“He’s won about every award and broken every record at Amherst you could possibly imagine in a four-year career,” Hixon said. “He’s a big-game player, too. You don’t usually go through a game without Aaron hurting you in some way. I hope he stays out of foul trouble and can have a great game in these last two games for us.”
That's if Amherst beats Williams. Just fueling a rivalry that doesn't really much more fueling, coach?