ELLSWORTH — As the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team dribbled the final seconds of 2018 off the clock, a chant from the Ellsworth student section said it all.
Leading by 10 points in the dying moments of Monday’s encounter against Orono, the home team and its fans were in a celebratory mood as it closed out the second game of a doubleheader against the Red Riots. Clinching the second of two wins, shouts of “This is our House!” echoed throughout Katsiaficas Gymnasium.
“We want to protect our home floor,” senior Devin Grindle said. “Nobody is going to come in here and have an easy time against us.”
As the visitors learned firsthand, the Eagles’ defense of their home floor is something they do quite well. With a new calendar year now upon them, both the boys’ and girls’ squads are positioned as Class B North contenders following their home success in the old.
The Ellsworth boys’ and girls’ basketball teams came back from early deficits Monday to earn New Year’s Eve victories over visiting Orono at Ellsworth High School. The girls’ team’s 51-45 win and boys’ team’s 46-36 triumph capped off strong home stands for both Ellsworth teams, which are now a combined 9-1 since Dec. 14.
In the opening game, the Ellsworth girls fell into a 6-0 hole to the visiting Red Riots before a Trinity Montigny 3-pointer put the Eagles on the board. Yet Orono (2-5) would continue to make matters difficult for Ellsworth, which trailed by as many as nine points as it dealt with early foul trouble and struggled against the size of Riots forward Ellie Sockabasin.
Orono could not extend its lead, though, and the Eagles (6-1) fought their way back to cut their deficit to 25-24 at halftime. Ellsworth then took its first lead when it went ahead 29-27 with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the second half, and the team maintained its advantage for good with key baskets from Samantha Carter and Sara Shea in the third quarter and an eight-point effort from Montigny in the fourth.
Montigny and Carter led Ellsworth in scoring with 18 and 13 points, respectively. The Eagles also got a strong defensive effort from their tallest player, forward Autumn Paul, who secured six rebounds after coming off the bench to guard Sockabasin in the post.
“The thing about our depth is that any one of our players can be the first one off the bench or the fifth based on what we need in any situation,” Ellsworth head coach Andy Pooler said. “Against bigger teams like Orono today and Caribou, [Autumn] takes a lot of pressure off the other players with her rebounding and defense because of her size.”
The win was the fifth in a row for the Eagles, who had earned home victories against Belfast, Presque Isle and Caribou in previous games over the school’s winter break after a blowout win against George Stevens Academy on Dec. 15. Beating Presque Isle was a particularly important achievement for an Ellsworth girls’ team that had not beaten the Wildcats in Pooler’s eight-year tenure as head coach.
“That was a long time coming,” Pooler said. “For a program like ours that’s been building something for all these years, it was a good feeling to beat a top-level program like that and go to the locker room afterward and say, ‘Finally.’”
In the boys’ game, junior Jackson Curtis scored the first 13 points for Ellsworth in an opening half that was riddled by turnovers. With the two teams exchanging leads throughout a tight contest, the Eagles (5-2) held a 21-20 edge through the first 16 minutes.
After a neck-and-neck third quarter, Ellsworth went up five points to start the fourth with a Connor Crawford basket before stretching it to 38-28 with a Curtis 3-pointer and Devin Grindle layup. Although the Red Riots (4-3) cut the Eagles’ advantage to four points in the final two minutes, the home team responded with another run of its own to avenge its season-opening loss in Orono.
Curtis finished with 26 points for Ellsworth, which also received eight from Grindle. Grindle’s defense against Orono’s Connor Robertson, the Big East Conference’s fourth-leading scorer at nearly 20 points per game, was also a significant factor in the victory.
“Devin did a terrific job guarding him, and then Norman came in off the bench and did a good job as well,” Ellsworth head coach Peter Austin said of his players’ defense against Robertson, who scored just 13 points. “He [Robertson] is just one of those players who can go off at any time, and we needed to be on top of him every time he was on the floor.”
The win catapulted Ellsworth to fourth place in the Class B North standings. The Eagles are currently positioned behind Hermon, Mount Desert Island and Caribou, the latter of which beat the Eagles 70-56 on Friday to hand them their only home loss of the campaign.
“We knew the winner of this game would go top four, and that was just extra motivation for us,” Grindle said. “I think we were also motivated to come back from the Caribou game and show we could play better defense.”
The Ellsworth boys’ next game will be on the road against Hermon at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 5. The Eagles will then travel to Washington Academy and MDI at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8, and next Thursday, Jan. 10, before closing out their road stretch against Belfast at 2:30 p.m. next Saturday, Jan. 12.
“We’re going to have to play really, really well to get some more wins,” Austin said. “This is getting into the meat of the schedule, and all of the games are on the road.”
The girls’ team will go for its sixth straight win when it plays on the road against Washington Academy at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 3. The Eagles will face Hermon at 1 p.m. Saturday and MDI at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, before taking on Belfast at 1 p.m. Jan. 12.