NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) — It was, as Newtown High principal Charles Dumais put it, a tiny piece of normal: Two rivals, Newtown and Masuk, in a December South-West Conference girls basketball clash.
The Nighthawks pressed; the Panthers turned it over. The crowd was strong, but not overwhelming, plenty of seats available behind the Newtown bench. The Nighthawks’ dance team performed at the half. English teacher Jay Edwards — the voice of Newtown High athletics — provided the play-by-play throughout the Nighthawks’ 64-44 victory.
Jeremy O'Connell, the always-fiery Newtown head coach, pleaded with his team on an early third-quarter possession: ‘‘Please! Play! Defense!!’’ he screamed, his tie flopping as he hopped along the Nighthawks sideline.
This is the way Newtown High wanted it. They wanted normalcy Wednesday, if only for an hour and a half, five days after 20 students and six faculty members were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
‘‘We got to run, we got to get our minds, our frustration out of us a little,’’ Newtown senior Erin Kenning said. ‘‘It was just important for us to be here today.’’
The empty seats, one coach said, shouldn’t be a surprise. People in this town are still in shock. Most don’t want to leave home. If they do, they’re bombarded by national media, microphones and cameras shoved in their faces at the local Stop and Shop or Mobil Station.
Athletic director Gregg Simon kept the media circus at bay Wednesday, only allowing local outlets into the Hawks Nest, where the walls were blanketed with cutouts of stick figures linking arms, every so often interrupted by a ‘‘SH’’ for Sandy Hook. A banner — Newtown strong — was placed just below the scoreboard. And 26 balloons — 20 of them white, six green, Sandy Hook Elementary’s colors — were along the sidelines.
Each was a reminder of the tragedy that took place.
‘‘Basketball is really trivial in what is going on, and really insignificant in life,’’ O'Connell said. ‘‘But it is a positive place where this town has seen a lot of positive things.’’
A tight game in the third quarter turned into a blowout, something Newtown fans and students have become accustomed to in recent years. Senior guard Cassie Ekstrom muscled through for a layup with four minutes remaining, putting the Nighthawks up 14 and prompting O'Connell to pump both fists, his signature celebration.
After the win, Newtown’s first of the young season, O'Connell reminded his team, ‘‘Hey, practice from 6-8 tomorrow,’’ part of the usual routine.
‘‘School hasn’t been normal,’’ Kenning said. ‘‘But it’s the best we can do right now.’’