Pound for pound, few places in Maine have seen more success in boys’ basketball over the past few years than Hancock County. Since the Eastern Maine region became the Northern Maine region prior to the 2015-16 season, local teams have played in a total of five state and seven regional championship games.
With all six Hancock County teams qualifying for the playoffs, the 2018-19 season is shaping up to be another successful one. Although much is still to be decided with five of the six teams scheduled to play in the preliminary round, local teams are likely to have significant impacts on their respective Gold Ball races over the next month.
Now that the tournament fields are set, it’s go time for teams locally and elsewhere around the state. Here’s how local teams stack up as they look to make deep runs at the Cross Insurance Center.
Ellsworth (12-6, No. 6 seed in Class B North)
With a balanced assortment of veterans and young players, Ellsworth produced its fourth winning season in the past five years in 2018-19.
Jackson Curtis and Hunter Curtis led the way in the paint, where they combined for more than 500 points and nearly 300 rebounds. The Eagles also had two of the Big East Conference’s top 3-point shooters in Devin Grindle and Darby Barry, who shot a respective 43.8 and 40.2 percent from beyond the arc. On defense, seniors Grindle and Norman Jodrey anchored a secure Ellsworth unit.
Among the Eagles’ various accomplishments this year were a season sweep of George Stevens Academy, something Ellsworth had not accomplished since the 2012-13 season, and two four-game win streaks. Head coach Peter Austin’s team did not lose back-to-back games all year.
The No. 6 Eagles will face No. 11 Winslow in the preliminary round at 6:30 p.m. today, Feb. 12. With a win, they would advance to take on Mount Desert Island (13-5) at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the Cross Center.
Mount Desert Island (13-5, No. 3 seed in Class B North)
MDI is back as one of the top threats to win the Class B North championship after fighting its way to the No. 3 seed in the Northern Maine playoffs.
Led by Derek Collin and Drew Shea, MDI’s frontcourt wreaked havoc on opponents in 2018-19. Fellow seniors Eli Parady and Brett Duley added more experience for the Trojans, and the emergence of junior Steven Pierce later in the year gave the team yet another weapon.
After a 2-3 stretch that included two losses to first-place Hermon and one to second-place Caribou, MDI ended the season on a high note with three straight wins. With each of those victories coming by double digits against playoff teams, this year’s Trojans are right where they need to be as they seek their third consecutive Class B North championship game appearance.
“With a lot of us being seniors who’ve played at the Cross Center before, we know what it’s like to be there and be under pressure in front of a lot of people,” Collin said. “Bringing that experience with us, that’s going to be important because it’s not something every team has.”
MDI will open the tournament at 5 p.m. Friday against the winner of the aforementioned Ellsworth vs. Winslow prelim. If victorious, the Trojans would advance to face No. 2 Caribou, No. 7 Orono or No. 10 Washington Academy in the semifinals at 2:05 p.m. next Wednesday, Feb. 20.
“It could be Ellsworth again [in the quarterfinal game], but no matter who it is, we know we’re in for challenging games from here on out,” MDI head coach Justin Norwood said after the Trojans’ 49-37 win over the Eagles in last Thursday’s regular season finale. “You’re getting everyone’s best this time of year, and there’s no tomorrow if you lose.”
Bucksport (9-9, No. 10 seed in Class C North)
In another universe, Bucksport might have earned a home prelim game as a 12- or 13-win team this season. Yet fate was cruel to the Golden Bucks, who were an unlucky 1-7 this season in games decided by four or fewer points.
Nevertheless, Bucksport is in the tournament as the type of team no one wants to face: a high-scoring unit that can take any opponent to the wire on a given day. Led by senior center Tyson Gray’s 19.1 points per game, the Golden Bucks enter the Class C North playoffs playing their best basketball at the right time.
Bucksport will play on the road against seventh-ranked Dexter (14-4) at 7 p.m. today. With a win, the No. 10 Golden Bucks would advance to face No. 2 Mattanawcook Academy (15-3) at 11:05 a.m. next Tuesday, Feb. 19.
George Stevens Academy (15-3, No. 3 seed in Class C North)
If you expected George Stevens Academy to drop off significantly this year after two Mr. Maine Basketball candidates and one of the state’s top sixth men graduated last June, you were sorely mistaken.
After losing to Ellsworth on Dec. 14, GSA reeled off 12 straight wins to climb to third place in the Class C North standings. Battling illnesses and injuries to starters and top-end bench players throughout the year, GSA finished the regular season with an average of 63.3 points per game and a 15-3 record.
“We’ve had a lot of sicknesses this year, and that’s just been something we’ve had to deal with,” GSA head coach Dwayne Carter said. “I think we’ve only had seven practices this year where we had every single player healthy, but we still competed every night and put together a very good season.”
Whereas last year’s squad saw seniors Taylor Schildroth and Max Mattson stuff the stat sheets, this year’s Eagles have taken an extremely balanced approach. Andrew Szwez averaged 15.9 points and 7.8 rebounds through 16 games for GSA, which also got strong years from junior Caden Mattson (8.6 points, 4.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game), Reece Dannenberg, Isaac Wardwell and Percy Zentz.
“One thing about having so many players who can fill in is that it’s hard to scout us,” Carter said. “If a team keys in on one player, we have plenty of others who can step in and get the job done for the team.”
GSA will host No. 14 Central (7-11) at 6 p.m. today in its first prelim game since 2014. With a victory, Carter’s No. 3 Eagles would advance to take on either No. 6 Fort Kent (14-4) or No. 11 Calais (6-12) in the Class C North quarterfinals.
Sumner (11-7, No. 8 seed in Class C North)
It’s been six years since the Sumner boys’ basketball team last played at the Cross Insurance Center, but after winning 11 games in a loaded Class C North field, the Tigers are on the verge of doing so once again.
With the help of a 3-0 start to the season, Sumner jumped into the playoff race early in the year and never fell out of the top 14. The Tigers were led by senior and 1,000-point scorer Colby McLean, who averaged 20.5 points per game on the season.
The eighth-ranked Tigers will take on No. 9 Fort Fairfield (12-6) at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Feb. 13, though the impending snowstorm could push that game back 24 hours. With a win over Fort Fairfield, Sumner would advance to face top-ranked Central Aroostook (15-3) in the quarterfinals at 8:35 p.m. next Tuesday, Feb. 19.
Deer Isle-Stonington (5-11, No. 7 seed in Class D North)
Pay little attention to Deer Isle-Stonington’s 5-11 record this year because the Mariners are much stronger than they appear at first glance. The Deer Isle-Stonington boys overcame their own share of injuries and illnesses this season to earn earn a playoff berth despite playing against one of Class D’s toughest schedules.
Deer Isle-Stonington will face No. 10 Machias (8-10) at 5 p.m. Tuesday. With a win, the Mariners would improve to 3-0 against Machias this year and advance to face second-ranked Jonesport-Beals (15-2) at 9:05 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16.
Other teams to watch
Hermon, which went undefeated last year, had an 18-0 regular season again and will be favored to win back-to-back Gold Balls. Caribou, which swept Ellsworth and lost by two points against MDI in Bar Harbor, has yet to lose in 2019. Class B South is not as strong as Class B North, but Mountain Valley and Maranacook are still formidable teams with title aspirations.
“I would definitely say Hermon is [the favorite],” Norwood said. “They have size, length and quickness, and any team wanting to win that championship this year has to be prepared to go through them.”
With seven teams between 14 and 16 wins, Class C North is a complete logjam. Although Central Aroostook and Mattanawcook Academy have the two byes, Houlton and Penobscot Valley will be among the other teams looking to dethrone GSA. In Class C South, Winthrop, Waynflete and Hall-Dale will be battling it out for the regional championship.
Woodland of Baileyville enters the tournament as the overwhelming favorite to win the Class D North title, but Jonesport-Beals and Greater Houlton Christian also boast strong teams. Forest Hills utterly dominated opponents this year, surging to an 18-0 regular season in Class D South with 17 of those wins coming by 20 points or more.