MILO — Jamie Russell couldn’t have imagined playing in a summer basketball camp with teams from rival communities back when he attended Penquis Valley High School.
“It probably wouldn’t have hurt us to do it, but no,” said Russell, now the boys varsity basketball coach at nearby Penobscot Valley High School in Howland. “I went to the first Pine Tree Camp they had back at Thomas College in 1974, and that was the first mingling I’d ever done with kids from other teams, and by then I was a freshman in high school.”
But times — and those rivalries — have changed, as he growth of off-season activities for athletes in virtually all sports has created an environment that encourages friendships among players who might have known of each other only through reading about their exploits in the newspaper a generation earlier.
Yet some barriers remain, so in an effort to help break those down while providing an affordable summer basketball experience, four Penquis region coaches — Russell, Penquis of Milo’s Tony Hamlin, Dexter’s Peter Murray and Curt Davis of Central of Corinth — recently merged their programs’ individual team weeks into a unified summer camp that may become the wave of the future in Eastern Maine.
“A lot of community members may not be aware of the fact that the coaching community is usually a very close-knit group, and we certainly are in this area,” said Murray. “Some of the people involved in this camp have been coaching for 25-plus years. We know each other very well, and so for the kids to see us interact with each other and show that our spirits are not just with our school but with this area is important.
“We can support each other, too, and I think one of the great benefits of this was that our kids got some exposure to some of the best coaches in Eastern Maine.”
Between 40 and 45 players showed up on five consecutive evenings for a three-hour session, with those sessions rotating among the four participating schools.
“All four coaches have been involved in one way or another or have been exposed to the various camps around the state,” said Murray, “and understanding the economic situation people are in it’s just not feasible that they’re going to be able to afford those weeklong stays at a camp.
“So we basically tried to provide a camp experience at a reduced price, and something that would remain local so there wouldn’t be a lot of travel involved.”
Campers paid $50 for the camp, far less than the several hundred dollars that room and board costs at many of the more traditional summer basketball camps available.
“That’s a lot cheaper than most camps around here, and it’s just as good, too,” said camp participant Corbin Bilodeau, who will be a senior guard at Dexter next winter. “I’ve been at other camps, and this one was just as good as any of those.”
Replacing the traditional camp experience wasn’t a goal of this joint clinic from a basketball perspective. Instead, it was to provide a cost-effective experience for the players while developing a sufficient player pool to enhance the instructional opportunities.
“If it was just us we’d have 10 or 12 kids in the gym, but I think with these numbers it’s just a great atmosphere,” said Russell. “We’re not trying to replace the Maine Maritime or Pine Tree or Husson camps, we just want to give some of these kids a taste of a camp experience.
“I’d love to send all these kids to a camp somewhere, but realistically with the way things are today, to ask someone to give up four or five hundred dollars isn’t happening.”
The idea to join forces this summer was rooted in a previous experience shared by some of the coaches.
“We did this in about 1998 or 1999, when PCHS [Piscataquis of Guilford], Central, Dexter and Foxcroft got together,” said Russell. “It went pretty well but it just got away from us.
“We started talking about doing it again over the winter, and we decided to try it and see what happens.”
The coaches shared ideas about the camp via e-mail throughout the next few months, then met to formalize plans before scheduling their collective team week.
“Tony printed out a sheet that was five pages of what we’d do in different sessions every day,” said Russell. “We had to go over the terminology, because while most of it was the same there were little things that were different. We all have our shortcuts and corners, but I don’t think it hurts the kids to learn the different ways.”
The coaches also addressed the specific needs of each team, some of which are in more of a developmental mode than others. Penobscot Valley and Penquis, for instance, are expected to be among the contenders in Eastern Maine Class C next winter, while Dexter and Central are in the process of rebuilding.
“With a team like mine, we’re young and we need the experience of game playing but we also need fundamental development,” said Murray, “so we spent the first hour of every night here with drill stations and working on fundamentals.
“I think this weeklong camp is going to be more beneficial to us than any of the other games we’re going to play this summer.”
Each session featured instruction in the fundamentals and the application of those skills to team play, with the coaches offering their unique perspectives on various topics — sometimes in a way the players hadn’t heard before.
“The biggest thing is that my kids will hear the same things from another coach,” said Hamlin. “That’s a big advantage, because after a while they get tired of hearing the same thing from the same coach. So for Curt’s kids to hear something he’s already told them from Jamie or Peter or me, for instance, is a big advantage. It gives everybody a little more credibility.”
And the players seemed to understand that fact, no matter that sometimes the knowledge was coming from a coach they hope to beat twice next winter.
“They’ve all got their own unique styles of coaching, and it helps you get a little different view of what to do from each different standpoint, and how to do things a little different,” said Trevor Lyford, who will be a freshman at Penquis this fall. “It’s all helpful.”
From foes to friends
The players from Central, Dexter, Penobscot Valley and Penquis arrived at Oakes Gymnasium in Milo for the opening session of the clinic just as they would for a regular-season game in mid-January, as members of rival teams not necessarily looking to make friends.
“The first night we were all separated by schools, there wasn’t any mingling,” said Lyford.
But as the week progressed, the four teams gradually integrated — partly by design, as the coaches split the players up for some of the drills, and partly by kids being kids.
“We hoped they’d be able to break down some of the barriers so it isn’t mortal combat come winter time,” said Hamlin. “It’s also important for them to get to know the kids from the other schools because once they get through playing basketball a lot of them still will be rubbing elbows in this area, they’ll see each other in college and beyond. This is a way to start developing some of those friendships.”
A particular point of coming together came during the three-on-three competition, which was arranged so players from different schools joined forces on the competing teams.
“It took a little bit of getting used to, because we’re used to playing with people
from our own team,” said Lyford. “It got a lot better as soon as we started playing three-on-three with people from other teams and got to know each others’ names. Then once we started playing the games we were high-fiving each other.
“The drills helped because they got us together, but mostly it was just everybody getting to know everybody else.”
And as they left the same gymnasium after the final camp session of the week, it was hard to tell who were leaving as teammates and who were the rivals.
“You go on the basketball court during the winter and of course you’re going to be rivals, but after the season it’s different because now you know these guys from having played with them, not just against them,” said Bilodeau. “The friendships help, too. It never hurts to have another friend.”
Building for the future
Not only did the players enhance their basketball knowledge and develop some friendships during this unified camp week, but the coaches derived benefits for their individual programs.
“A lot of times when you get locked into your own program, some kids aren’t able to be challenged because they might be bigger or taller or faster or quicker than the others,” said Murray. “But when you start to bring schools together you’re going to find someone from another school who’s at your talent level and that’s really what happened with all four schools here this week.
“When we had our competitions and scrimmage games, we were able to find the right matchups and combinations that maximize the learning for all the kids involved.”
Murray added that this unique camp week format already has drawn interest from other schools interested in participating next year.
“I’m not sure how big it can get in these small gyms,” he said, “but I anticipate doing it again.”
And if this specific camp chooses not to grow beyond four schools, Hamlin envisions similar multi-school clinics possibly popping up elsewhere.
“We should have done it before, and I don’t understand why other schools wouldn’t do it,” he said. “Geographically, if it’s not a hardship travel-wise it can work out well, and for us it dovetails with the rest of our summer program.”
And the economic benefit of such a low-cost camp experience can’t be underestimated, either — for the players or their parents.
“I was telling Tony when we were walking out of the Dexter gym the other night that my son [Bryan, a Penquis point guard] playing here is a pretty good three-dollar-an-hour investment,” said Russell. “I know where he is, and I know he’s getting some good coaching from some different people.”