To hear the crowd at Sereyko Memorial Gymnasium will its team to victory Wednesday night was to witness more than 500 fans collectively plead for something that had eluded them for more than a generation — a simple 35-mile bus trip down Interstate 95.
It’s a trek thousands of school buses have made from points north before, passing by the Howland exit sign en route to the Bangor Auditorium, site of the Eastern Maine high school basketball tournaments for Classes B, C and D.
But not since 1987 had Howland’s own boys basketball team made the trip.
And before that Penobscot Valley High School hadn’t sent a boys team to the Mecca since 1980, when the Howlers scored their last tourney victory in Bangor by defeating Washington Academy of East Machias in the quarterfinals.
But now PVHS is heading back to Bangor, thanks to a dramatic 62-61 Class C preliminary-round survival of George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill.
“We talked about wanting to get to the Auditorium with this team,” said PVHS coach Jamie Russell, whose roster features 6-foot-7-inch junior Joe McCloskey and includes just one senior.
“Then when it looked like we would be in the play-in round it was important for us to get that game here, because the crowd here is just crazy.”
Penobscot Valley High School, like many others in northern Maine, is a small school getting smaller in the wake of the demographic and economic realities.
With just 183 students, PVHS has now fewer students than the Class C minimum, which means the Howlers likely will be reclassified to Class D after next season.
PVHS long has been on the lower end of the Class C enrollment spectrum, meaning the Howlers routinely have competed against schools with 100 or more additional students.
That makes trying to compete with such schools difficult, and in basketball the Howlers certainly have had difficulty keeping up. Until this year, they hadn’t had a winning record since 2000, and this is just their fourth winning season since their last bus trip to Bangor 23 years ago.
That makes next Tuesday’s trip to Bangor all the more rewarding.
“For Howland, as far as I’m concerned it’s like winning the NCAA tournament,” said PVHS athletic administrator Gerald “Hutch” Hutchinson. “It means a lot here, it really means a lot to this community.”
There were traces from the past among those present for Wednesday night’s victory.
Mike Austin, who played on the 1987 tourney team and scored 1,331 points during his career as a Howler, was in the crowd to watch his nephew, junior forward Jacob Jones, complement McCloskey’s 30-point, 17-rebound performance against GSA with 18 points and solid ball-handling.
Then there was Russell, who coached PVHS to its 1987 tourney berth, then a year later moved on to Central of Corinth and eventually Piscataquis of Guilford before returning to Howland last winter.
Now in his 25th year as a varsity coach, Russell has an Eastern Maine title to his credit — in 2000 at Piscataquis — and is closing in on 300 career wins.
He also has distinct knowledge of the plight of the Howlers, having lived in nearby LaGrange most of his life. He no doubt appreciates how much it will mean next Tuesday to make the 35-mile bus ride south — because he knows exactly how long it’s been since the last trip.
“It was a long time ago,” said Russell. “I was just a kid back then, 26 years old. Now I’ll be 50 in April.”