BLUE HILL — The last time the Ellsworth boys’ basketball team played on the Cross Insurance Center floor came when it appeared in its first state championship game in nearly three decades. In the three years since then, the Eagles have been longing to get back.
Although Ellsworth made the playoffs in the two seasons following its 2016 Northern Maine title, heartbreakers in the prelims kept the Eagles from returning to the Cross Center both times. Thanks to a hard-earned win Saturday, that wait appears to be over.
Ellsworth earned a season sweep of George Stevens Academy on Saturday with a 59-52 victory in Blue Hill. The win moved Ellsworth within touching distance of a bye to the Class B North quarterfinals, which are set to begin next week in Bangor.
“We knew this was big for points and what that would mean for us,” junior Jackson Curtis said. “For us juniors, we’ve lost twice in the prelims. We don’t want to have to go through that again this year.”
After forcing a defensive stop to start the game, Ellsworth bookended a Hunter Curtis layup with a pair of Devin Grindle 3-pointers to jump out to an 8-0 lead. Yet GSA fought back with seven points from senior forward Percy Zentz, and the home team whittled away at Ellsworth’s lead to bring the game to a 14-all tie through the first quarter of play.
That didn’t last long, though, as Grindle hit another shot from beyond the arc to open the second quarter. His fourth 3-pointer of the first half put Ellsworth (12-5) up 25-18, and the visitors padded that lead further in the half’s closing minutes to take a 30-20 lead into the locker room.
“I was feeling it,” Grindle said of his first-half shooting performance. “We ran some plays that were able to get me and some of other guys some open shots, and I just felt in the zone after I drained that first one.”
Although GSA (14-2) scored the first basket of the second half, Ellsworth went on a 9-0 run to stretch its lead to 17 points midway through the third quarter. GSA cut the deficit to single digits late in the game with scoring bursts from Andrew Szwez and Reece Dannenberg, but it wasn’t enough to stop Ellsworth from coming away with the victory.
Grindle and Jackson Curtis scored 13 points each for Ellsworth, which swept GSA for the first time since the 2012-13 season. Also scoring for the visitors were Hunter Curtis with 10 points, Darby Barry and Austin Harris with eight apiece and Norman Jodrey with seven.
“When you play a good team like GSA, it takes a good effort from everybody,” Jackson Curtis said. “Devin got us off to a good start with those early 3s, and then we had four or five other guys that made sure we kept it up later in the game.”
Grindle’s shooting effort came as he was on the tail end of a weeklong battle with a cold. The sickness made Saturday’s game one of the most tiring of his high school career, but that wasn’t going to stop the senior from making one of the his final games count.
“I don’t know 100 percent why, but I sometimes feel like I play better when I’m sick,” Grindle said. “I feel crazy worn out right now, but for a win like this, it’s all worth it.”
For GSA, Andrew Szwez scored a game-high 16 points in the loss. The team’s other scorers were Dannenberg and Zentz with 12 points apiece, Isaac Wardwell with 10 and Caden Mattson with two.
The loss dropped GSA from third to fourth in the Class C North standings. The Eagles will face No. 3 Mattanawcook Academy (13-3) at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Feb. 5, in Lincoln.
Ellsworth’s next game will be at home against Mount Desert Island (12-5) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7. Although the Eagles are likely to receive a bye no matter what — it would take an Ellsworth loss Thursday and very specific set of results elsewhere in the state for them to drop to the sixth spot — a win against the Trojans on Senior Night would be a great way to ensure it.
“We’re going to need to play a full 32 minutes,” head coach Peter Austin said. “You have to play mistake-free whenever you play MDI, and that’s what it’s going to take.”