No matter where he works, Justin Norwood is surrounded by trophies.
In the winter, Norwood, the head coach of the Mount Desert Island boys’ basketball team, begins his days at Mount Desert Elementary School, where Gold Balls won during the building’s time as a high school in the days of yore line the hallways. He ends his days coaching at Bunny Parady Gymnasium, where trophies from more recent years can be seen just outside the southern entrance.
“You walk into the school, and you see all the Gold Balls from over the years lined up,” Norwood said. “It’s like a look at all of the generations of basketball. It’s a pretty neat thing.”
From the first tournament nearly a century ago to the modern era, the game of basketball and the culture that surrounds it statewide have grown drastically. Yet even if the 3-point lines, giant jumbotrons, fancy sneakers and sublimated uniforms of today would be unrecognizable to those who watched Maine high school basketball in its early days, the mission of winning hardware has remained constant.
Since the beginning, Hancock County teams have been players on the championship stage. In 1924, only the third edition of the state tournament, Northeast Harbor claimed the county’s first regional title as a squad coached by Stanley Week, winning the Eastern Maine championship. Bar Harbor High School had its own share of success in the 1920s with regional championships in 1927 and 1928.
After George Stevens Academy won Hancock County’s first state championship in 1948, the Ellsworth boys’ team went on one of the most memorable runs ever seen by a high school basketball team in the state of Maine. Dominating all comers, the Eagles posted back-to-back undefeated seasons to win the 1953 and 1954 state titles.
Those Ellsworth teams remain to this day some of the most famous in Maine and all of New England. The Eagles’ 1954 outfit was later inducted to the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, the induction for which saw team members reunite in Uncasville, Conn.
“It was unbelievable,” Edes, a 1954 team member and individual Hall of Fame inductee, told The Ellsworth American following the 2009 ceremony. “There were 1,600 people there. It was like old home week. We swapped a million stories.”
Over the next decade and a half, teams throughout the state began bringing worn-out nets and shiny trophies back to Hancock County by the busload. Bar Harbor (1955), Mount Desert (1958, 1959, 1960, 1965), Stonington (1961, 1962) and Ellsworth (1964, 1966) all claimed state titles, and Bucksport (1965) added its first-ever regional crown.
The late 1960s and early 1970s belonged to Sumner, which won state championships in 1970 and 1973 and won five consecutive Eastern Maine crowns from 1969-73. Bucksport, led by 6-foot-8 forward Keith Ogden, claimed its first state title in the sport in 1978 and repeated as the Class B champions the following year.
With the introduction of the girls’ state tournament in 1975, the number of Hancock County teams competing for glory doubled. In 1987, Deer Isle-Stonington claimed the first girls’ Gold Ball in Hancock County history with wins over Machias and Richmond in the Eastern Maine and state title games, respectively.
Although it would take a decade before Hancock County would add another state championship, local teams claimed plenty of regional titles in that span. On the boys’ side, Ellsworth rode Tim Scott’s “Miracle Minute” to the 1988 title, and Deer Isle-Stonington (1989) and Mount Desert Island (1995) won their first ever Eastern Maine crowns; on the girls’ side, Ellsworth claimed the regional championship in 1992.
“We were all polar-opposite in personality but the tightest in teamwork,” said Shannon Curtis, a freshman on Ellsworth’s 1992 squad. “We were loaded with superstitions; we all had to have our hair the same way, and there were certain things we had to wear and eat before games. I remember that we would listen to ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston as our hype song.”
In 1997, the MDI girls’ team ended Hancock County’s 10-year Gold Ball drought by beating Greely 57-38 to win the first state title in the consolidated school’s history. That sparked the beginning of a dynasty for the Trojans, who later three-peated as Class B champions from 2001-03 as a Bracey Barker-led unit became the first Hancock County team to win back-to-back-to-back state titles.
GSA’s boys’ team added its third state title in 2003, and Deer Isle-Stonington claimed its first boys’ state championship four years later with a 22-0 season in Class D. GSA also enjoyed a successful stretch on the girls’ side with regional titles in 1999, 2000 and 2009.
“We have a great tradition all around here,” said Don Allen, who coached GSA’s girls’ team to its 2009 Eastern Maine title and now coaches the boys’ team at Deer Isle-Stonington. “You have that real small-town feel to it, and everyone always has tremendous support. I love it.”
More recent years have brought even more championships to Hancock County with the GSA boys winning three consecutive Class C titles from 2016-18 and an exceptional MDI boys’ team winning its first Gold Ball in 2017. The Ellsworth boys (2016) and MDI girls (2014 and 2019) also added regional titles to their respective trophy cases.
When the tournament returns for its 100th anniversary next year, Hancock County teams will be back with the hopes of bringing more hardware back home. With talented players set to return and young newcomers entering the fray, a tournament a century in the making could end in local teams adding to the area’s championship collection.
“One of the best things about it is that kids see the players and the teams before them and want to be just as great and do the same thing,” Norwood said. “Whether it’s MDI or Deer Isle or the great Ellsworth teams with Katsiaficas, everyone has that legacy that lives on. It’s a really cool thing we have in these Maine communities.”