State championship day has become a regular date on the schedule for the Camden Hills of Rockport and the Calais boys basketball teams — Calais is making its fourth straight trip to the state final this weekend, while Camden Hills is back for the second time in three years and third time in five seasons.
For Woodland High School’s five seniors, however, Saturday’s 2:45 p.m. Class D state final against Richmond at the Bangor Auditorium has been nearly a decade in the making.
Guards Chad James, Ben Sears, Aaron St. Pierre and Scott Boomer and center Eddie Flaherty have been playing together since the days of elementary-school leagues and travel teams.
Their enthusiasm for the sport only grew when the Woodland High School girls’ basketball teams of 2000 and 2001 brought home gold balls symbolic of Class D state titles.
“We used to go to the games and watch them play,” said Sears, “and we knew that was something we wanted to accomplish.”
Among the players on that 2001 team was freshman guard Kaitlyn Leeman, James’ sister.
“They came back home after they won it and they showed us the gold ball,” said James, a sixth-grader at the time. I thought to myself, ‘this is what we want.’”
Now those youngsters are schoolboy veterans poised to end their own high school careers as champions.
They are led by Sears and James, two 1,000-point scorers who have comprised the Woodland backcourt for the last three seasons.
“They are different, very different,” said Woodland coach Troy Cilley. “Chad is small and quick, and he depends a lot on penetration and getting up the floor. With Ben, at the offensive end there’s nobody I know of in Class D that can stop him one on one. He’s athletic, and he really gets off the floor. He’s that rare player who has that hang time.”
That duo has combined for more than 30 points per game this season in leading Woodland through a challenging regular season to its current 15-7 record.
First the team endured a bout of mononucleosis that slowed St. Pierre, Flaherty and James at the start of the season, and stayed with James through most of the winter.
“Chad finally didn’t look like himself until three weeks from last Saturday,” said Cilley.
“I just noticed that he was finally getting off the floor in layups, and then after we finished shooting foul shots he was shooting jump shots and it looked like he was getting 3 inches higher off the floor than he had been.
“I went up to him and said, ‘it looks like you’ve got your legs back, and he just looked at me and grinned.”
James’ return to form gave a boost to a team whose regular season hadn’t quite matched expectations, in part because of a schedule that included Calais and fellow Class C tourney qualifiers Washington Academy of East Machias, Lee Academy and Narraguagus of Harrington — teams that handed the Dragons six of their losses.
“The losses definitely hurt because we had high expectations for ourselves,” said Sears, “but we knew that playing those Class C teams would help us out in the end.”
That was proven out during the Eastern D tournament. St. Pierre starred defensively for the Dragons, while Sears and James keyed the offense as Woodland topped Ashland and Bangor Christian before ousting Central Aroostook in last Saturday’s final and avenging an overtime loss to the Panthers’ in the 2008 title game.
Now just one more challenge remains, a Richmond team back in the state final for the third time in four years.
Cilley, for one, is hopeful about his team’s chances, and the Dragons’ third-year coach has been there before — he also led East Grand of Danforth to the 2001 Eastern D title in his third year at that school.
“These kids have had unbelievable improvement,” he said. “Three years ago, the first game we played at Calais we struggled just to get the ball past halfcourt. We only had 15 points at halftime, and when we’d get an open shot we’d shoot an air ball.
“But these guys have come a long, long way.”
’Jammers, Blue Devils ready
State championship weekend begins Friday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, with Camden Hills of Rockport facing Cape Elizabeth in the Class B boys final.
Four-time Eastern C champion Calais will attempt to win its third state crown during that run against Dirigo of Dixfield at the Bangor Auditorium on Saturday night.
Eastern A champ Edward Little will try to win its first gold ball since 1946 when it faces Thornton Academy of Saco on Saturday night at the Augusta Civic Center.
Camden Hills (21-0) is seeking its first state title since 2005.
“We did lose Monday’s practice, but we’ve had a chance to rest up a little bit, and the kids are pretty focused on Friday’s game,” said Camden Hills coach Jeff Hart, whose team practiced in Portland on Wednesday.
Cape Elizabeth (17-4) is led by senior forward Alex Bowe, the Western B tournament MVP.
“He’s a good player,” said Hart. “He makes a lot of perimeter shots, and he’s tough to defend because even though he’s listed at 6-3 he shoots falling away so it’s hard to get close to him to bother his shot.”
Calais (16-4) will attempt to win its third Class C state title in the last four years Saturday night at the Bangor Auditorium when it hosts 20-1 Dirigo of Dixfield.
Coach Ed Leeman’s club is coming off a dominating performance in the Eastern regional tournament, where the Blue Devils outscored their three opponents by a combined 88 points.
Led by tourney MVP Cal Shorey, a 6-4 senior center, Calais will be tasked with trying to contain a Dirigo lineup featuring 6-9 center Thomas Knight, the MVP of the Western C tournament who has accepted a basketball scholarship to continue his career at Notre Dame next winter.
Nic Crutchfield complements Knight up front, while Tyler Chiasson, Aaron Fernstermacher, Eric Bolduc and Tristan Franchetti key the Cougars’ transition game and perimeter play.
“Everybody talks about Tommy, and rightfully so,” said Leeman. “But their other players play tough, too, so you can’t just double Tommy and think that’s going to do it.
“But no question he makes them all better. It’s going to be a tall task.”