DEXTER, Maine — While many high school basketball teams are still scrambling to qualify for postseason play in this final week of the regular season, Stearns of Millinocket faces no such panic.
Coach Wade Duplisea’s club is poised to earn a preliminary-round bye in Eastern Maine Class C, so the final tests before tournament week are more about rounding into proper form than they are about coming up big in a must-win situation.
The Minutemen could have handled both such challenges with their effort Wednesday evening, as Stearns ran off the game’s first 15 points en route to a 66-28 victory over Dexter at Guiski Gymnasium.
The win improved the Minutemen, ranked third in Eastern C as the week began, to 16-1 with just Friday night’s game at fourth-ranked rival Schenck of East Millinocket remaining on their schedule.
“I think playing Schenck is going to be a good challenge for us to end the season,” said Duplisea, whose team outlasted the Wolverines 56-54 in overtime during their earlier meeting in Millinocket on Jan. 6
Stearns forced 12 of Dexter’s 31 turnovers during the first quarter, and the Minutemen held the Tigers scoreless until Chris Chambers hit a 3-pointer with just 2:11 left in the opening period.
“Coach told us we needed to come out with a lot of intensity and just focus on tonight,” said senior guard Zach Sadlon, one of seven seniors on Stearns’ roster, “and we did pretty well defensively, we came up with a bunch of steals.”
Stearns answered Dexter’s lone basket of the period with five more points to close out the quarter to ensure that the Tigers would not entertain any comeback thoughts.
“We came out with a lot of intensity tonight to get the game at our tempo, and we created a lot of turnovers,” said Duplisea. “Dexter always plays well at home, so if you give them a chance to stay in the game, let them hit a couple of 3’s and gain some confidence, it can cause some trouble, but we didn’t let them do that tonight.”
Junior guard Garen Manzo scored 14 points — eight in the first quarter — and had six steals to lead the Minutemen. Billy Eurich came off the bench to add nine points, while Tyler Richards had eight points and five rebounds and Sadlon and Brandon McLaughlin also scored eight points each.
Andrew Lary, one of six Dexter seniors playing their final home game, led the 3-14 Tigers with 10 points, while classmate Billy Trivette grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
The win was the third straight for Stearns since its only loss of the winter, a 62-60 double-overtime decision at Piscataquis of Guilford on Jan. 26.
The Minutemen followed that defeat with a one-point escape over Penquis of Milo, but a subsequent eight-point road win at Houlton combined with this victory over Dexter seemingly has this team regrouped as it prepares for its first postseason berth in five years.
“We were a little banged up for a week or so, but then we went and played Houlton and it seemed like we were coming around again,” said Duplisea. “I think it was just a bump in the road, because we played well at Houlton and we played well tonight, so hopefully we’ll carry it into the tournament.”