BLUE HILL — For most high school basketball teams in Maine’s smallest classes, finding role players to build championship teams is no easy task. From 2014-18, the George Stevens Academy boys’ squad was one of the rare few to find the perfect blend.
In Taylor Schildroth and Max Mattson, the GSA boys had a pair of Mr. Maine Basketball candidates and elite scorers and rebounders, respectively. In Stefan Simmons, they had a top-notch utility player who could thrive in any situation and lived for the big moments. The result was three consecutive state championships and a span in which the Eagles lost just twice in 66 games.
Those players graduated back in June, but others who played vital roles are back for another go this year. One such returnee is Caden Mattson, a junior whose defensive prowess has flown largely under the radar on a GSA team that’s been loaded with talent in recent seasons.
Although he wasn’t part of the GSA team that won the first of back-to-back-to-back Gold Balls in 2016, Mattson has stifled opponents from all across the state over the past two title runs. Now an upperclassman on a team that must account for the loss in production stemming from the aforementioned departures, his relentless defense on and off the ball is going to be even more prominent.
“Even growing up, I kind of struggled with offense; it just wasn’t my thing,” Mattson said. “With everyone else being able to score, I focused on playing hard defense and building my game up from there.”
Defense has always been a focal point for GSA head coach Dwayne Carter’s squads, but this year’s team is placing even more emphasis on that end of the floor. Losing the size, athleticism and energy that last year’s seniors provided has left the Eagles with big holes to fill, and whether he’s smothering opposing players or flying across the court to help out his teammates, Mattson is more than capable of picking up the slack.
In last year’s Class C North championship game, Mattson was given the task of guarding Fort Fairfield’s Isaac Cyr, one of the state’s most prolific scorers. Mattson held Cyr to just 14 points on 16 shots, an effort Carter said is indicative of the mentality Mattson brings to the court in both practices and game situations.
“He wants that kid who’s the other team’s No. 1 scorer and who’s always going to get the ball, and his goal is to take him on and not let him get away,” Carter said. “He puts a lot of pride and effort into what he does on the defensive end of the floor, and without somebody like Max to block that shot or Stefan to make that big stop, we’re going to need that kind of player.”
That defensive skill set, Carter said, comes from a trait that runs in the family. Having coached alongside the junior’s father, Matthew, for many years now, the GSA head coach continues to notice the same intensity and attention to detail in Caden that he sees in the team’s assistant coach.
“His dad is very intense and very focused, and [Caden] was brought up that way and made it part of his game,” Carter said. “They both bring that in-your-face style in how they strive to compete, and those personalities have really driven them.”
For Mattson, that style of play has helped GSA put the clamps on some of the state’s top guards and wing players. In addition to keeping Cyr in check in last year’s regional title game, Mattson held Winthrop’s Jacob Hickey without a basket over the final three quarters of the 2017 state championship game and helped keep a threatening Houlton team in check in last year’s regional quarterfinals.
“The thing about some of these scorers is they get so frustrated when they’re not scoring,” Mattson said. “To see those looks of frustration on their faces when they’re not scoring, I love it. It’s awesome, and it lets me know I’m doing my job right.”
Mattson isn’t short on toughness, either, as he showed when returned to last year’s state title game against Hall-Dale despite hitting his head on the floor late in the first half. He’s bulked up this offseason as well after putting time in the weight room with teammate Andrew Szwez.
With last year’s record-shattering senior class no longer available, the Eagles won’t have an easy path to a fourth straight Class C championship. Yet nothing about what GSA has done over the past three seasons has been easy, and having doubters is only motivating this year’s team even more.
“I’ve had people say to me that they don’t think we’re going to be good this year,” Mattson said. “When you hear that, it really makes you want to play with a chip on your shoulder and prove all those people wrong, and that’s what we want to do.”