BAR HARBOR, Maine — The first day of spring defied the traditional seasonal change on Mount Desert Island this year.
The grudging warmth of a typical mid-March afternoon instead was replaced by temperatures approaching 70 and breathtakingly clear skies whose reflections shimmered off a quiet Atlantic Ocean.
Adventurous sorts flocked to the various hiking trails within Acadia National Park for an early visit to where mountains look down upon maritime life.
Such days make it difficult to separate the expectations of two different seasons.
But it wasn’t just Mother Nature defying the calendar.
In five gymnasiums around MDI and neighboring Trenton, more than 700 high school and middle school athletes began their spring by continuing a rite of Maine winter.
For when one basketball season ends, the next season begins.
“We went from the [high school] tournament right to practicing for this, with hardly a break in between,” said Justin Alley, a 6-foot-6 sophomore center from Jonesport-Beals High School and one of the players who competed at the 18th annual Great Harbor House Shootout tournament.
“Maybe a break’s good once in a while, but we love playing basketball.”
A Down East tradition
The modern high school basketball experience features several acts that extend well beyond the Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned season, which runs from Thanksgiving to the crowning of eight state champions at the end of February.
While the intensity then abates, the competition begins anew with a series of “undergraduate” tournaments that give players, coaches and fans a first look at next year’s teams.
After a month of undergraduate events in which the school teams remain relatively intact, many players go off individually to form travel teams that compete in local, regional and even national tournaments organized by such groups as AAU and Youth Basketball of America, or YBOA.
Then comes summer basketball, followed by fall leagues, all leading to the start of another high school preseason.
“It’s nice to play with kids after the season,” said Zach Blodgett, a 6-3 junior forward from perennial Class A power Bangor High School. “For some of the guys who didn’t play that much on varsity this year, it will help them get their confidence up, and for some kids who were on JV last year this gives them a chance to play against varsity-level players before next season.”
Blodgett soon will join one of the state’s more successful travel teams, the MBR under-17 squad led by veteran AAU coach Carl Parker.
But on this weekend he was on MDI playing on one of three Bangor high school-level teams in one of the state’s more popular undergraduate tournaments.
Originally called the Skip Chappelle Great Harbor Shootout in honor of the former University of Maine men’s basketball coach, the Great Harbor House Shootout began in 1992 with just a seven-team field.
Growth since then has been steady, in part because of the format that matches programs against each other regardless of their status during the high school season, when four classes based on enrollment are the rule.
“Back then the thought here was that wouldn’t it be interesting to see how teams stack up against each other like they do in Indiana, where there’s only one class,” said Scott Phelps, sports director at the Harbor House Community Center in Southwest Harbor which organizes the Shootout.
“Let Jonesport-Beals go up against Bangor and Brewer go up against Deer Isle-Stonington. It’s just five-on-five basketball, that’s what people wanted to see.”
This year’s weekend-long event drew a record 78 teams competing in boys and girls high school and junior high divisions, with entries from as far away as Fort Kent.
“With businesses it’s location, location, location,” said Phelps, who has been involved with the Shootout since 1998. “With the Shootout, it’s time, time, time. It’s right after the MPA’s state tournament is done but AAU hasn’t started yet, and baseball hasn’t started, either.”
“The year before I started here there were 15 teams, and every year it’s grown exponentially. We went up to 25, and then to 30 and it’s just kept growing. We’ve got the space with all of the gyms on the island, so we said why not let it grow, and from that it’s just kind of transformed into what it is today.”
Phelps organizes the event each year along with Harbor House colleagues Diana Novella and Susan Allen and veteran official Fred Berry. Their efforts are complemented by the work of as many as 100 volunteers who donate their time to operate scoreboards, man ticket booths and perform various other duties.
Also integral to the tournament’s success is a pool of game officials assigned by Berry to work the more than 100 contests that are played from late Friday afternoon to late Sunday evening.
But it’s a labor of love based on a passion for basketball.
“It’s good to see fellow officials you’ve worked with during the season, and see the fans see the players,” said Mel Buckingham of Belmont, who along with fellow Down East officials like Berry, John Shoppee, Ed McFarland and Dave Renault comprise much of the core group of referees that have worked the tournament since its inception.
“As you walk around here every year, there will be people who will come around and shake your hand and ask you how you’ve been doing. It’s a good atmosphere.”
The Great Harbor House Shootout also has benefited many businesses on the island during what is otherwise a slow time of year.
“I think it’s a great thing for our community, too, because of the economic value. We’re bringing in 3,000 people or so to the area,” said Phelps. “MDI’s economy is based on tourism and working the ocean, but at this time of year everybody’s broke, so this is the perfect time to have that fresh income coming to the island.
“The hotels are full, the restaurants are all filled, and people are in line to get a candy bar at the convenience stores. It’s great.”
Building for next year
Undergraduate tournaments like the Great Harbor House Shootout serve as a valuable resource in the evolution of some of the state’s more successful high school basketball programs.
Seniors from the recently completed interscholastic season aren’t allowed compete in these undergraduate events, which allows the players who will be back next winter to get a head start.
“A lot of off-season is just doing a lot of skill work. There’s no pressure really, just work on your individual game,” said junior forward Cam Shorey of Calais, who led the Blue Devils to this year’s Eastern Maine Class C championship game.
“But if you’re playing with the guys that you play with during the season, that’s a bonus because you also get to know your teammates better.”
Not only do these events help established stars like Shorey refine their skills against top competition, they also give less experienced players the chance to adapt to what they hope will be expanded roles during the coming year.
“Playing here helps the younger guys a lot, and we’re completely there for them,” said Matt Alley, a sophomore point guard for a Jonesport-Beals team that reached the Eastern Maine Class D semifinals this winter before dropping a two-point decision to eventual state champion Schenck of East Millinocket.
“When they do something well here, you acknowledge it, and when they do something wrong, you say don’t worry about it, just keep working on fixing it.”
Indeed, many of the coachable moments seen during tournaments like the Great Harbor House Shootout involve an older player mentoring a younger teammate, because under MPA rules high school coaches are barred from coaching their players beyond the designated interscholastic season, save for a specific period during the summer.
Many high school varsity coaches still come to the undergraduate tournaments, but all are relegated to the stands — as interested fans.
“This is different from the summer because then we have a coach,” said Blodgett. “We all know our plays, and sometimes we run plays that we remember from last year during the summer. In this, we just pass the ball around, get open for our shots, drive and pitch and just work on basic basketball.”
Typically a parent of one of the players or another interested person from the community coaches the teams.
“It’s more of a showcase of talent because you don’t have the head coach running a system,” said Phelps. “You have a friend or parent running the team so the athletes are playing and dictating the game on their own terms, which is fun to see.”
That’s not to say the tournament lacks quality leadership from the benches. This year, for example, legendary Jonesport-Beals High School coach Ordie Alley came out of retirement for the second straight postseason to coach that community’s high school boys entry in the Shootout.
“I think he rides me and Justin harder than anyone else because he expects a lot out of us, but I love it,” said Matthew Alley, Ordie Alley’s grandson. “We’ve learned a lot just in the two weeks we’ve been in the gym with him, and I think everybody’s having a great time with it.”
Stars seen, champions crowned
Ultimately, the Great Harbor House Shootout is both a showcase for some of the region’s top individual talent and a competitive event that gives the winners an initial dose of momentum for the season ahead.
This year’s boys high school tournament field featured such standouts as Tyler McFarland and Keegan Pieri of Camden Hills of Rockport, Graham Safford of Hampden, Blodgett and Tristan Thomas of Bangor, Ray Bessette of Brewer, Shorey of Calais, Taylor Gross of Hermon, Joey McCloskey of Penobscot Valley of Howland (playing for the Lee Academy team in the Shootout), Andrew Austin of Ellsworth, and the Jonesport-Beals trio of Matt Alley, Justin Alley and Garet Beal.
McFarland, a junior who has led Camden Hills High School to back-to-back Eastern Maine Class B titles, was the tournament’s dominant performer. The 6-6 forward scored 36 points in the championship game as his team won the Shootout’s boys’ title for the second straight year.
Central of Corinth won the girls’ high school crown, while the Bangor boys and the Hampden girls won the junior high championships.
For many of the Shootout participants, their focus on basketball now shifts to gymnasiums elsewhere around the state as the basketball season within the off-season continues.
But that’s not the case for everyone.
“For me, I’ve got to start working on my [lobster] traps pretty soon,’ said Matt Alley. “I’m getting ready to go fishing, and I need to make some money. I just bought a brand-new boat.”