ELLSWORTH — Andy Pooler’s tenure with the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team began with a rebuilding job.
Stepping on as Ellsworth’s head coach in 2011-12, Pooler took over a young team fresh off a one-win season. The first year was trying as expected for Pooler and the Eagles, who lost their first eight games en route to a 3-15 campaign.
“It would be a goal just to hit the rim,” Pooler recalled. “That was some very tough sledding. It takes time to put in the work, make sacrifices and surround yourself with good people to make things happen.”
In the 11 years since, big things have certainly happened for Pooler and the Ellsworth girls’ basketball program. Most recently, those positive developments have come courtesy of a team that has found a groove late in games as midseason approaches — and delivered its head coach a milestone win.
Ellsworth is currently riding a four-game winning streak with just one game remaining in the first half of the regular season. The team’s hot stretch included a New Year’s Day victory over perennial Class B North powerhouse Presque Isle that marked Pooler’s 100th career victory.
Ellsworth’s streak began Thursday as it posted a 55-21 blowout victory over Orono at Orono High School. The Eagles put four players in double figures with Grace Jaffray scoring a game-high 15 points, Morgan Clifford and Abby Radel scoring 11 points and Jocelyn Jordan adding 10. Ellsworth also got six points from Addison Atherton and two from Lily Bean.
Two days later, Pooler got win No. 100 in the form of a shocking 37-33 victory over Presque Isle in Aroostook County. Ellsworth outscored the Wildcats 26-11 in the second half to post a rare road victory in the matchup and earn some major Heal points in the Class B North standings.
“As we’ve all talked about, we’re a second-half team,” Jaffray said. “We just seem to come together the best in the second half. Whether we’re down and need to come back or whether we’re ahead and need to push our lead, that’s when we play the best as a team.”
Clifford led the way with 16 points for Ellsworth in the win. Jocelyn Jordan added eight points — six when the Eagles needed them the most in the fourth quarter — for the visitors, who also got eight points from Radel, three from Bean and two from Megan Jordan.
Earning win No. 100 against a Presque Isle team that’s had Ellsworth’s number in recent years was particularly sweet for Pooler, whose team made the long trip north on New Year’s Day after the originally scheduled matchup Dec. 23 was postponed. Although Pooler knew he was sitting on 99 wins, his players weren’t informed of their coach’s achievement until after the game.
“It’s one of those things where I didn’t want to tell the girls because that would have put a lot of pressure on them,” Pooler said. “It’s really not about me, but they were excited to be a part of that, which was great because that’s what’s important to me. There’s a lot of kids who have helped contribute to that over the years.”
Two days later, Pooler’s Eagles again showed their “comeback kids” credentials in a 50-49 road victory over Houlton (3-1). Trailing 33-19 at halftime, Ellsworth roared back with a second-half effort that included a 21-point fourth quarter to move a game over .500.
Jaffray provided the bulk of the scoring for Ellsworth as she poured in 28 points, 16 of which came in the final frame. The Eagles also got nine points from Clifford, five points from Radel, four from Jocelyn Jordan and two each from Bean and Megan Jordan.
The game was tied at 49 with just 1.6 seconds left when Jocelyn Jordan stepped up to the free-throw line to shoot a pair. Jordan sank the first free throw to give Ellsworth the lead and corralled her own miss on the second attempt as the Eagles ran out the clock.
“I was terrified,” Jordan, Ellsworth’s lone senior this year, said of her nerves as she stepped up to the line. “I just looked at my feet the whole time and tried not to think about it, really. … I made the first one, and then I was able to rebound the second one when I missed.”
Ellsworth was then tasked with a quick turnaround as it took on John Bapst (0-6) at home Tuesday night in its fifth game in just eight days. The Eagles started off slowly but pulled away in the second half to claim a 59-33 victory and improve to 5-3 on the season.
Jaffray led Ellsworth in scoring for the sixth time in eight games as she finished with 12 points. The Eagles, though, got a balanced scoring effort overall with nine points apiece from Clifford and Radel, eight points from Atherton, seven from Bean, six each from Jocelyn Jordan and Megan Jordan and two from Elise Sargent.
Ellsworth is scheduled to host Bucksport (2-4) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6, before taking on Mount View at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8, in Thorndike. The latter contest will mark the beginning of the regular season’s second half for the Eagles, who are determined to round out their game as they jostle for a high seed come February.
“We might be a second-half team, but we want to be a first-half team, too,” Jordan said. “We’re playing a lot better as a team right now than we were earlier in the year, and if we can do it all throughout the whole game, we’ll be where we want to be.”