ELLSWORTH — Gage Hardy has grown this year — in more ways than one.
A bench player last year, Hardy, a member of the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team, put in countless hours of work to improve his game ahead of the 2021-22 season. Yet the Ellsworth senior has also been aided by growth in a more literal area: his height.
“I grew like 5 inches,” said Hardy, who now stands at roughly 6-foot-2. “I shot up real fast, and I was able to grow into my body.”
That growth spurt, combined with major boosts to his skill set, has helped Hardy go from the No. 9 scorer last year to one of the region’s standout players this season. It’s also given an Ellsworth team that was already stacked with every player on the roster from a year ago returning another lethal offensive option.
A year ago, Hardy was one of a slew of players trying to establish himself on a young-but-talented Ellsworth team. He would earn his share of playing time as a junior, but on a team that quickly became capable of going nine or 10 deep, Hardy struggled to stand out.
“I can’t lie: I was really slow last year,” said Hardy, who averaged just 1.8 points a game for the 12-4 Eagles in 2020-21. “I knew I needed to put in a lot of work to get better and build my confidence up. … I also wanted to get faster because that’s how I like to play.”
Over the course of the offseason, Hardy was able to make those improvements. The result has been a revelation both for Hardy himself, who was in the top 10 in the Big East in scoring at 13.8 points per game through the latest Big East stats release, and 11-0 Ellsworth, which has owed much of its success this year to the senior’s breakout campaign.
“Gage had a really good summer; he came back in, he was in shape, and he lifted,” Ellsworth head coach Peter Austin said. “I think the biggest thing was confidence because you’ve really seen that improve in him this year. He’s attacking the basket a lot, and with those extra inches he has, he’s scoring more and getting a lot of rebounds.”
Quickness, ball movement and athleticism have been hallmarks of the current group of Eagles for years. Ever since their middle school days, these Ellsworth players have managed to win consistently by running the floor, finding the open man regularly and dominating in transition.
Hardy’s emergence this year has allowed Ellsworth to execute that style of play even better. His newfound size and improved passing, quickness and shooting — 5 of 12 from 3-point range after going 0 for 11 last year — have drawn the attention of opposing teams, which has freed up more opportunities for the Eagles’ No. 1 and No. 2 scorers, Chance Mercier and Hunter Curtis.
“What he’s done this year has been a tremendous help to us,” Mercier said. “He can block shots on defense, and on offense, his scoring takes a lot of pressure off of Hunter and I. Other teams can’t just focus on the two of us; they have to focus on Gage now. That’s been really important.”
Although Hardy had been hoping this sort of breakout season would be in the cards, he admits not even he saw himself making the strides he’s made this year. His expectation, he said, was to improve to the point of becoming one of the team’s top role players or, if lucky, a spot starter.
Instead, Hardy has been one of the team’s top players throughout the season. He made his presence known in Ellsworth’s Dec. 11 opener against Mount View with 12 points and eight rebounds and added a career-high 19 points as well as seven rebounds in the Eagles’ Jan. 15 over Washington Academy.
It was another game, though, in which Hardy truly realized he was on the verge of a special senior season. That moment came in Ellsworth’s Dec. 17 game against Houlton, in which Hardy shot 8 of 9 from the field and scored a team-high 17 points.
“I think having our team-high in scoring that day is when I finally realized what I could do this season and felt my confidence start to reach that next level,” Hardy said. “That was when I took a step back and said, ‘Wow, I can really help our team out as far as scoring points.’”
Hardy and Ellsworth will look to stay undefeated when they take on Hermon (6-5) at 6 p.m. tomorrow, Jan. 22, at Hermon High School. The Eagles will then host Presque Isle at 3:30 p.m. next Friday, Jan. 28, before playing on the road against Caribou at 2:30 p.m. the following day, Jan. 29.
Thus far, nobody has come close to solving an Ellsworth team that already had sky-high aspirations when the season began. Thanks to Hardy, taking down the undefeated and top-ranked Eagles isn’t about to get any easier.
“With what he’s done and what Hunter and Chance can do, it’s like we have a three-headed monster,” Austin said. “Teams know he’s going to be a threat for us, and with that and our depth, it’s helped us out a lot.”