It would have been easy for the Piscataquis of Guilford boys basketball team to look at Monday night’s game with undefeated Stearns of Millinocket as an insurmountable challenge.
When the teams met earlier in the season, Stearns rolled to a 76-33 victory.
The rematch couldn’t have been more different, as Piscataquis rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and won 62-60 in double overtime when sophomore Cody Briggs scored at the buzzer after grabbing an offensive rebound.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a 43-point turnaround,” said first-year PCHS head coach Bill Reynolds.
The loss by Stearns leaves just four undefeated schoolboy teams in the state: Camden Hills of Rockport and Fort Fairfield in Eastern Maine and Cheverus of Portland and Dirigo of Dixfield in Western Maine.
But while Stearns remains comfortably in line for a postseason berth despite the loss, the victory elevates a surging Piscataquis team into the Eastern Maine Class C playoff mix.
The Pirates, who began the week ranked 13th in the official Heal point ratings, are now 11th according to Reynolds’ unofficial tally — and 11 teams will qualify for postseason play in two weeks.
“We knew looking at the schedule that six of our last seven games would be against teams that beat us the first time around,” said Reynolds. “We’ve got some tough games left, but the kids are really starting to believe in what we’re doing.”
The Pirates did struggle at the outset of the season, losing their first three games. But gradually a young team with just one returning impact player in senior guard Nolan Lovell has found its stride, thanks to a focus on half-court man-to-man defense and the impact of younger players like Briggs, sophomore forward Dylan Izbicki and freshman guard Nick Schmiedlehner.
“We only had one kid with varsity experience back from last year, and at the beginning of the year we were shooting tentatively,” said Reynolds. “Now they’re playing with a lot more confidence.”
The Pirates now have won four of their last five games, the only loss a one-point decision to Class B Foxcroft Academy in which Piscataquis held a four-point lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
Monday’s win over Stearns gives the Pirates playoff hope they might not have had a month ago, but with four games left nothing is certain in a tightly bunched battle for the final postseason berths in Eastern C.
PCHS faces a dangerous home game Wednesday against rival Dexter, then games against pointworthy Orono and Schenck of East Millinocket before its season-ending contest against a Penobscot Valley of Howland team coached by former Pirates’ head coach Jamie Russell.
“When we met at the start of the season, I told the kids that we just wanted to be playing our best basketball by the middle of January, and if we could do that anything could happen,” said Reynolds.
Portland QB plays it smart
Andrew Lieberman, a senior quarterback from Portland High School, has been named the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame’s Play It Smart National Student-Athlete of the Month for December.
A four-year member of the high-honor roll, a three-year varsity letter winner and named to the 2008 Maine All- State All-Academic Team, Lieberman was nominated by Portland academic coach Audrey McKenzie based on his ability to persevere through multiple challenges while still managing to maintain impressive grades, support his teammates, and serve as a community leader.
While preparing for his junior year, Lieberman faced the sudden death of his father. In coping with that loss, Lieberman channeled his grief into community service by volunteering with Portland youth football, the Wayside Soup Kitchen and as an active member of Stroudwater Baptist Church.
“I realized that even with all I was going through that there were people worse off than me, and I learned to make the best of my situation,” said Lieberman.
Lieberman subsequently fractured his ankle early in his senior year of football, which seemed to prematurely end his involvement with the team. But after undergoing surgery he rarely missed a practice, working with the younger quarterbacks and cheering on his teammates.
“He was certainly missed during the regular season. But his perseverance and support for the team was amazing for a kid of his age,” said Portland football coach Mike Bailey.
His hard work paid off, and Lieberman returned to the field for the Bulldogs in their 97th annual Thanksgiving Day game against rival Deering. The game marked a triumphant return as Lieberman passed for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
Each month the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame honors one student-athlete as the Play It Smart Student-Athlete of the Month. Winners are selected from nominations received by academic coaches from 160 schools in 33 states.