ROCKPORT — Tyler McFarland and Keegan Pieri get much of the attention for the Camden Hills boys basketball team’s most recent run of success, which includes the 2009 Class B state championship and an overtime loss in the 2010 state final.
McFarland, already a two-time Bangor Daily News All-Maine choice, and Pieri are a pair of versatile 6-foot-6 performers few teams can match no matter the class.
But the Windjammers’ success also is based on 84 feet of constant defensive pressure — an effort sparked by another senior on the squad, guard Joel Gabriele.
Gabriele, who came off the bench for coach Jeff Hart’s club last winter, has grown into one of the region’s top perimeter team defenders as a senior.
Not only is he averaging more than 11 points per game during his team’s 16-0 start, but the 6-foot-1 Gabriele also ranks among the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B leaders in steals and assists.
And Camden Hills has outscored its opponents by more than 30 points per game entering Tuesday night’s home game against Gardiner, scoring 78.6 points per contest while yielding just 46.3.
“Joel is our defense, he’s the one who gets us started,” said McFarland, one of the favorites for the 2011 Mr. Maine Basketball award. “He’s the one up there putting the ball-pressure on, he sets the tempo for us. He leads the team in steals, he has plenty of deflections, he has a great knack for the ball and he just loves to play defense and then get out on the break. Just having his pride and determination on this team instills a great deal of urgency on our defense, and without him we wouldn’t be half the defensive team that we are.”
Gabriele was at his best during the first half of last Friday’s showdown with Midcoast rival Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, a team that had taken Camden Hills to overtime in their first meeting of the season and was riding its own 11-game winning streak.
But Gabriele and backcourt mates Adam Carlsen, Kyle Olehnik, Andrew Flanagan and Nathan Catell teamed with McFarland and Pieri to disrupt the Panthers’ offense before it could get started.
Camden Hills forced 17 turnovers in the first half alone while building a 56-19 lead, and the ensuing 84-39 victory left the rest of Eastern Maine Class B wondering if anyone can stop the Windjammers with the regional tournament set to start next week.
Gabriele had eight steals in the first half alone against Medomak Valley, most coming when he helped teammates double-team ballhandlers just as they crossed into the frontcourt.
“We actually have three principles to a trap,” Gabriele said. “If you’re within three steps (of the player with the ball) and we’re playing our trap defense, if you can see the back of his head, and the third one is if you can just surprise him so he doesn’t see you coming. Once I just see the numbers on the back of his jersey I’m there in a snap and it surprises them most of the time and that leads to easy layups.”
McFarland and Pieri were among the beneficiaries against Medomak Valley, each converting a first-half takeaway into a dunk. Gabriele also converted steals into his own offense, scoring all 18 of his points against the Panthers in the first half.
“He’s so quick, he gets his hands on every ball and is always in the right spot,” said Pieri. “It’s great knowing that if I’m calling for a trap he’s always going to come at the right time to the right spot.”
Gabriele played sparingly in the second half of that game, finishing the night with nine steals, six deflections and two blocked shots.
“Joel’s a key to our team,” said Hart. “Everybody knows about Pieri and everybody knows about McFarland, but when Joel comes out and plays that way defensively, that’s the key for us. He’s energetic, and when he’s where he’s supposed to be, that’s what we do. We had a game like this with Maranacook that was the key. Against Mount View the other night, that was the key. When he’s ready to go, he’s been the difference, I think.”