ELLSWORTH — In the span of a year, the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team has done a 180 in both composition and style.
Last season, an Ellsworth squad heavy on seniors displayed the virtues of patience and experience. A seasoned group content on waiting for the right cut to be made or the right pass to become available, the Eagles won an impressive 17 games and made it all the way to the regional final.
A year later, Ellsworth has lost the vast majority of the faces that powered that successful run. Brimming with underclassmen, many of whom are new to varsity play, the Eagles can be found flying up and down the floor at breakneck speed.
“We have a new playing style this year,” Ellsworth junior Hunter Curtis said. “We played like this when we were back in middle school, and now that we’re all in high school, we’re doing it again.”
The new rhythm, albeit different, is already paying dividends for a young Ellsworth team. The Eagles might lack the experience of last year’s unit, but as has been evident in the team’s early games, the talent and new style of play have come together quickly for a group determined to maintain the program’s foundation for success.
This Ellsworth team, as Curtis noted, is one that spent significant time together at the youth level prior to its recent reunion at Ellsworth High School. Curtis helped lead the group to a Sheriff’s Cup title in 2018 before moving on to Ellsworth High School, and the group’s younger players put together back-to-back undefeated seasons at Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Ellsworth has used that same quick, aggressive style of play to achieve early success this year. The 4-1 Eagles have earned double-digit wins against Bucksport, Sumner, Orono and Hermon and lost by a single point to defending Class A champion Hampden Academy.
On offense, Ellsworth can make multiple passes and produce a shot attempt before opponents even have time to react. At the other end, the Eagles pursue the ball relentlessly from all angles and create steals out of thin air.
“We’ve had more floor burns this year than I’ve had in the last three years,” head coach Peter Austin joked. “That’s what they’ve always done, and that’s what they’ve done all year so far this year. They hustle and do the small things really well.”
Personnel-wise, Curtis is the only returnee to have seen significant playing time a year ago. As a sophomore in a lineup that included his older brother, Jackson, Curtis averaged 8.5 points 5.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists as the team’s starting point guard.
In four games thus far this season, Curtis has already taken a massive leap for the Eagles. The junior’s efforts to date include a 31-point game Jan. 22 against Bucksport, a 14-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist showing last Wednesday against Sumner and a 33-point, 10-rebound effort last Thursday against Orono.
Five other players, Brett Bragdon, Gage Hardy, Eamon MacDonald, Brody Mercier and Michael Palmer, have become contributors this year after swinging between varsity and junior varsity last year. The Eagles also boast three freshmen, Kaleb Conners, Chance Mercier and Miles Palmer, who lost just one game together in their three years at EEMS.
Chance Mercier made an immediate impact for Ellsworth in his first game as he scored 21 points against Hampden. The freshman then continued his strong start to varsity play with 12 points against Bucksport and Orono, 16 against Sumner and 19 against Hermon.
“I’ve just been doing my job and playing basketball,” Mercier said. “It’s different [at the high school level], but it’s still about finding space and taking good shots. We’ve been moving the ball well, and I’ve been getting open.”
Ellsworth’s youth did showcase itself in the that season-opening loss to Hampden three weeks ago. In that road contest, the Eagles led the reigning state champion Broncos by 15 in the fourth quarter before the home team came back to steal the win.
“That was a good learning experience for us,” Austin said. “We were up by a bit against a good team, and we were taking our quick shots instead of working the ball around. That’s just something that’s different with this year compared to last year, when we had veteran guys who all had a lot of varsity experience. We’ll learn from it and get better.”
Ellsworth has upcoming road games at 6 p.m. tomorrow, Feb. 11, against Mount Desert Island (1-5) and 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, against Brewer. The Eagles will then play home games against John Bapst at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, and George Stevens Academy at 6:30 p.m. next Wednesday, Feb. 17.
With no state tournament at the end of the line this year, each game going forward will be big for an Ellsworth team that will be aiming high in 2021-22. The Eagles have no seniors on the roster this season, meaning the entire team will be back and looking to do serious damage when tourney time returns next February.
“This team is no joke,” Curtis said. “We have a new team this year, but we’re tough, and we know we can build for next year. We’re coming.”