Ellsworth’s Sierra Andrews looks to clear the ball as Caribou’s Hope Shea chases after it during a high school girls’ soccer game Oct. 7 in Caribou. Round trips from Hancock County to Aroostook County take roughly eight hours in total travel time and require teams to stay overnight in hotels when playing in the area on back-to-back days. KEVIN SJOBERG PHOTO/PRESQUE ISLE STAR-HERALD

Love them or hate them, trips to Aroostook County a way of life for local high school teams

BAR HARBOR — Locating the escape hatch on the average coach bus wouldn’t require a passenger to walk more than a few feet. Locating the escape hatch on the coach bus used recently by the Mount Desert Island cheer team, on the other hand, would require a trip to an unknown field off Interstate 95.

On the afternoon of Jan. 12, the Trojans were making their way to Caribou to compete in the Big East championships when the hatch at the front of the bus came loose. When the team arrived in Old Town for the scheduled bus driver switch, the hatch was tightened, and the bus was deemed fit to continue traveling.

Soon after MDI got back on the road, though, what appeared to have been a minor malfunction earlier turned into a near disaster for everybody involved. As the team reached the home stretch of its journey, a strong headwind came about and blew the hatch straight off as a stunned group of cheerleaders, coaches and traveling parents looked on in disbelief.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” MDI head coach Missy Leland said. “The wind just picked it up and completely took the thing off the top of the bus. It was crazy.”

The incident, which took place during a rainstorm near Houlton, didn’t have much of an effect on MDI, which finished third at the competition after arriving in Caribou in plenty of time following a stop for repairs. Local teams, after all, are used to making these long trips to Aroostook County, which have been staples for local teams across all sports for many years.

Ellsworth’s Charlie Hughes takes on a wrestler from Fort Kent during a high school wrestling tournament Jan. 7 in Caribou. The Ellsworth wrestling team was one of many to compete in Aroostook County throughout the 2017-18 high school sports season. SHA-LAM PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO

With a limited number of high schools scattered throughout the 20,000 square miles that span the state’s five easternmost counties, traveling long distances for games is a must for teams throughout the region. Matchups between Hancock County and Aroostook County opponents are among the longest of these treks, which force some teams to make trips that total 10 hours over both legs.

No local school has been spared from that fate. Even teams that don’t schedule games in the area during the regular season occasionally travel to The County for playoff games, which is what the Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ basketball team had to do when it had to play a preliminary game against Fort Fairfield in the Class D North playoffs three years ago.

“I swear it took us nearly five hours,” Deer Isle-Stonington head coach Randy Shepard said. “When you live around here, you have to travel. That’s just the way it is.”

One of the most frequently scheduled arrangements between schools in the two counties pits the Ellsworth and MDI varsity teams against Caribou and Presque Isle. The two teams participate in the same conference in nearly every sport offered by both schools, a setup that requires multiple bus rides between the state’s northern reaches and coastal lands no matter the season.

“It’s long, and it’s easy to get bus legs if you’re not careful,” said Andy Pooler, who makes the trip two or three times per year as head coach of both the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team and the MDI baseball team. “You have both teams on the same crowded bus, and the drive up isn’t easy.”

Mount Desert Island’s Alexis Clarito defends against Presque Isle’s Kasey Haley during the second half of a high school girls’ basketball game Jan. 27 in Bar Harbor. MDI and Ellsworth play four of their 18 regular-season basketball games against Presque Isle and Caribou. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

Basketball meetings between the two factions are particularly challenging. Ellsworth and MDI play four of their 18 regular-season games against Caribou and Presque Isle, which battle the Eagles and Trojans on back-to-back days in one county in December before traveling to the other at the end of January to do the same.

In order to save on fuel costs and avoid more than a day’s worth of combined travel over the course of each season, the road teams stay in hotels following their Friday night games. As soon as the Saturday contests come to a close, the players pack the buses and head home with their parents traveling close behind them.

“Parents pretty much do everything separate from us [for basketball]. Sometimes they will book rooms in the same hotel, but a lot of them will stay in a different hotel and travel in their own vehicles and everything,” Ellsworth senior Zach Harris said. “It’s pretty separated, but they still come and support us, which is awesome and very important to us.”

To add to the importance of such weekends, all eight varsity teams are frequently among the state’s best. Depending on whether a team wins both games, loses both games or earns a split, it could find itself anywhere from the top of the standings to fighting simply to earn a bye in the prelims.

Members of the Presque Isle boys’ basketball team board the team bus after a game against MDI on Jan. 27 in Bar Harbor. The Presque Isle and Caribou boys’ and girls’ team travel to Hancock County one weekend every season to play games against MDI and Ellsworth on back-to-back days before heading home. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

“No matter who you are, those two days are going to test you,” Pooler said. “You’re up against some of the best teams in the state in what’s really not even two full days. Even when you’re at home, it’s a different environment.”

The state’s abundant wildlife also has been known to affect trips to The County. Such was the case with the John Bapst girls’ basketball team, which had a startling encounter on its journey to Presque Isle last week when a wild turkey flew into the bus windshield and made a large crack in the side of the glass.

Fortunately for the John Bapst players and coaches, the team made the trip on a large coach bus rather than a typical school bus, just as the MDI cheer team had done two weeks earlier. That minimized the damage to the window and allowed the team to continue its drive without needing to stop for repairs.

“It just happened out of nowhere, but our bus driver did a good job of handling the situation” John Bapst head coach Chris Woodside said. “It’s a good thing it was just a turkey and not a moose or a large deer because that would have been a much bigger problem, obviously.”

Before the team got back on the road, the John Bapst players decided to hold a mock funeral for it. They also named it “Sherman” in honor of the Aroostook County town through which they had been passing at the time.

Even for Woodside, who’s journeyed across the state for games many times before as a player and coach at Calais, the experience was one of a kind — and a reminder of what can take place on long road trips along Maine’s northern highways.

“I guess you never know what you’re going to see when you’re going through The County,” Woodside said. “It’s a big area, and a lot can happen.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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