From left: WUHS Varsity Girls’ Basketball Head Coach Jason Johnson stands with game announcer Jacob Merrill and retired NBC News Correspondent Bob Hager. (Kim Lackley Photo)
By Michelle Fountain, Standard Correspondent
This year if you attend a Woodstock Union High School (WUHS) Girls’ Basketball game, you will be treated to play-by-play coverage as well as some fun halftime commentary by freshman Jacob Merrill.
“It’s been decades since anyone, let alone a student, announced the basketball games. With Jacob at the helm, the Varsity Girls Basketball Team is leading the charge on bringing back this tradition,” Girls’ Basketball Booster Chair Kim Lack- ley says.
Merrill says he was approached to take on this role after Coach Jason Johnson saw him perform in the Yoh Players “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in December. “I said, I’ll give it a shot,” Merrill recalls.
Although he did not have a lot of prior knowledge about basketball, Merrill notes, “It’s really fun to interact with the girls’ basketball teams…announcing is going really well.”
“I’m learning as I go,” Merrill says, noting he learns from the calls the referees make, and recently, he got some
advice from former WUHS Sports Announcer (class of 1956) and retired NBC News Correspondent Bob Hager.
“I always knew I wanted to be a broadcaster. While I was in high school, I used to practice writing short newscasts about Woodstock and broadcast them into a tape recorder so that I could listen back, to critique. When I finally had my driver’s license, I got a summer job announcing, first at a station in Springfield and then Brattleboro. Returning to Woodstock for my senior year, I hoped I could talk WTSL (Lebanon) into broadcasting high school basketball,” Hager says.
They did not go for it, so he got permission from the principal to set up courtside during games. “I just broadcast the games into the taperecorder – again, just for myself! It wasn’t too embarrassing because I think most spectators assumed I was really broadcasting on some local station,” Hager recalls, noting he did the same for baseball his senior year.
Hager continued his sports broadcasting career at Dartmouth, where he became the news and sports director for the college’s radio station. “I wrote and broadcast a daily news show, and I was the play-by-play announcer for Dartmouth football, basketball and ice hockey. When our basketball team got to the NCAA tournament twice in two years, I got to broadcast back to Hanover from Madison Square Garden, New York. Quite a thrill!”
Hager later went on to a 45-year career in TV news, 10 at local stations at 35 at NBC where his posts included Saigon, Berlin, Moscow, New York and Washington D.C. He retired to Woodstock in 2004.
Meeting before a recent Girls’ Basketball Game, Hager and Merrill compared notes on announcing.
“We just went over some basic chores: be sure you can pronounce all the names correctly. Maybe practice quietly to yourself once or twice before it’s showtime. But I did tell him about my own experience broadcasting courtside in Woodstock and later for NBC, just as an example of what’s possible – how things can develop,” Hager says.
“I not only enjoyed meeting Jacob but— when I heard him start his announcing, I was quite startled. He’s so much better than I imagined any young guy would be. I think he may be a natural,” Hager says, noting that Merrill had a “very conversational and smooth delivery.”
“It was really fun meeting Bob… he just said ‘Be yourself,’” Merrill says of the interaction.
Merrill says his favorite part of announcing comes at halftime, “I like announcing the halftime stuff like chuck-a-duck and the 50/50 raffle.”
Looking to the future, Merrill says he will probably continue with the announcing although he does not yet have any plans to move into other sports.
Hager says he looks forward to hearing more of Merrill as his announcing career continues.
This article first appeared in the February 8, 2018 edition of the Vermont Standard.