Noah Dunlap’s 3-pointer, a moment of joy years in the making

The Kearsarge bench celebrates after Noah Dunlap (42) scored during his senior night on Feb. 6. 

The Kearsarge bench celebrates after Noah Dunlap (42) scored during his senior night on Feb. 6.  COUPER GUNN photos / Maxfield Productions

Noah Dunlap holds the ball for Kearsarge during a game earlier this season.

Noah Dunlap holds the ball for Kearsarge during a game earlier this season.

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-20-2024 4:24 PM

Modified: 02-20-2024 5:01 PM


It was the coolest moment of Noah Dunlap’s life. Senior Night at Kearsarge Regional High School on Feb. 6.

Dunlap, a Kearsarge senior who has autism, had the chance to play for the varsity team for the first time. In the first quarter, he made a layup; in the fourth, he knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key.

In his mind, he was Steph Curry knocking down a 3-pointer to win the NBA Finals for the Golden State Warriors. His teammates reacted accordingly.

Kearsarge won the game against Monadnock, 52-24, but Dunlap stole the headlines.

“He just epitomizes what our program is about,” said Cougars head coach Nate Camp. “Being a good teammate, working hard, hustling through drills, being very coachable. Everybody loves him.”

He’d played on the school’s JV-II team for four years preparing for this opportunity. He couldn’t let it go to waste.

“To be a part of this and just to see the community and his teammates and the other team be such good humans, it just was heartwarming,” Dunlap’s mother Heidi said. “This whole basketball experience has been nothing but a positive, and it’s been such a motivator for him.”

An anchor

Heidi Dunlap remembers the dark days all too vividly. The depression. The hospitalizations. The helpless feeling that her son would never get the help he needed.

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But basketball has always been his anchor.

“What was so surreal for me with Senior Night was, we have had nights where we have been sitting up at Dartmouth ER waiting for psychiatry because he’s had a really hard time,” Heidi Dunlap said. “To have something so wonderful happen, it was just an amazing feeling, and the kid deserved it. My heart bursts for him.”

The night choked up so many who’d watched Noah Dunlap work for this chance, including Camp who’d been there from the very beginning, helping him stay on track through all the challenges he endured.

Improving at basketball took longer for Dunlap than it did for his peers. He always loved shooting the 3-pointer, but his coaches told him that he needed to work on defense and dribbling. He couldn’t be on the floor just to shoot.

The progress was slow but steady.

“Some kids, they can pick that up really fast,” Heidi Dunlap said. “But to him, when he learned to dribble between his legs or pass from behind the back, it means so much more.”

Dribbling to the basket for a layup and draining a 3-pointer on Senior Night weren’t the only Dunlap moments that caused tears to well in Camp’s eyes.

Later that week, Dunlap played in his final game for the JV-II team. In the locker room after it ended, he called the team together for a speech.

“He talked about, ‘Guys, you gotta continue to go after your goals, like I always wanted to make varsity,” Camp said. “He talked about perseverance, he talked about grit. ‘If I could do that, then so can you. You have to put time in to get better. You gotta want it.’

“I’m sitting there going, ‘I couldn’t have said it any better myself, and I’m the varsity coach and leader of this whole program.’ ”

A family

Dunlap isn’t ready for his basketball career to be over just yet. He recently started playing for the Upper Valley Hawks Special Olympics team where he’ll be able to play for several years.

But his time as a player for the Cougars has wound down. He hopes to still stay involved with the program’s summer camps, and, as he noted, maybe give a motivational speech every now and then. Kearsarge basketball has offered him so much. It’s provided stability in a life that’s featured more instability than most encounter; it’s allowed him to feel like he’s a part of something greater; it’s taught him lessons he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

As Camp looked back on the culmination of Dunlap’s journey, he spoke with a sense of pride, like Dunlap was one of his own children. Coaching high school sports presents a myriad of challenges, but it’s the moments like this that validate the daily grind.

“It really resonated that what we’re doing as coaches, it really matters,” Camp said. “What we’re doing with our program matters to kids.”

And Dunlap couldn’t help but express a mutual appreciation for all the time his coach put in to making this whole experience possible.

“He’s just kind,” Dunlap said. “He says we’re a family, not just on the court but off the court as well, and I’ll always be part of that family.”