HAMPDEN — Graham Safford stands alone among the more than 100 schoolboy basketball players who will converge on the Augusta Civic Center for the Eastern Maine Class A quarterfinals Saturday.
He’s the only one who already has a gold ball.
Safford, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard for second-seeded Hampden Academy, was a key member of the 2009 Camden Hills of Rockport team that went undefeated and won the Class B state title.
“We went 23-0 plus we won the state championship, that was a great team,” said Safford. “Now I’m just trying to bring what I learned from the seniors on that year’s team to this year’s team.”
Safford’s high school basketball career has had its highs and lows — from the state title as a sophomore to being ousted last February after fouling out on a technical foul during the semifinals, and from the death of his father less than two months ago to his recent selection as 2011 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A North Player of the Year.
Through it all he’s cherished the good times and learned from the travails, and Safford hopes now to lead the Broncos to the heights he reached just two years ago.
From Windjammer to Bronco
Safford was part of a celebrated freshman class of basketball players at Camden Hills of Rockport in the fall of 2007 along with current Windjammer stars Tyler McFarland and Keegan Pieri.
They had played together since sixth grade, on middle-school teams as well as in AAU and travel-team programs.
“I remember we watched the 2005 state championship game when Camden went undefeated and won it all,” said Safford. “I think I was in seventh grade then and still traveling around playing AAU with my group of friends, Tyler, Keegan and Joel (Gabriele). We always wanted to win a gold ball.”
Safford was a top reserve as a freshman at Camden Hills, then started as a sophomore and helped a team led by first-team All-Maine choice Gordon Fischer match the 2005 team with an undefeated state championship season.
It was seen as the first of perhaps three straight state titles for the sensational sophomores, but shortly after the season ended Safford’s mother got a new job in the Bangor area and the family moved to Hampden.
The memories of what might have been linger — especially so since Camden Hills lost in overtime of the 2010 Class B state final and are undefeated and top-seeded in Eastern B this season.
“I can’t help thinking about it sometimes,” said Safford. “Obviously I’m not going to say they would have won it last year if I had been on the team because that’s a selfish point of view, but I definitely miss playing with those guys. We had built something there with coach (Jeff) Hart, and I definitely miss it.”
Once Safford moved to Hampden, he was welcomed by a veteran basketball team with high aspirations of its own.
“I stepped into a group that had been playing together for a while, doing the same thing I had been doing with the guys from Camden,” he said. “I think it was new both from my side and their side because they hadn’t had a new guy step in for a while.
“But they were very accepting of me. Everyone was extremely unselfish so it wasn’t like you had to argue over who was shooting. I don’t consider myself someone who takes a lot of shots anyway, so I felt like I stepped in pretty well.”
Safford actually finished his sophomore year of school at Hampden, allowing for an earlier acclimation to his new classmates and teammates than the typical transfer student.
“I think what made the transition easier for Graham was that he arrived in March before the school year finished,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett. “So the feeling-out process for basketball began during the summer.”
Safford also starred in soccer at Hampden during the fall with several of his future basketball teammates, and that growing familiarity was apparent as basketball season began.
In his debut with the Broncos, he scored 26 points as Hampden defeated defending Eastern A champion Bangor 56-49, but it wasn’t just the points that suggested that Safford was a welcome addition.
“He had a really big impact,” said Hampden senior forward Jacob Moore (a future All-Maine honoree now at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.) at the time. “He was getting his points but he also was getting everyone else shots, so it was good.”
One bad bounce
Hampden finished with a 13-5 record good for fourth place in Eastern A, but Safford’s first tourney run with the Broncos was nothing to match the championship feeling of a year earlier.
Safford endured early foul trouble and was limited to two points in the quarterfinals, though Hampden still defeated Brunswick 50-38.
He was in much more of a positive flow in the semifinals against top-ranked Brewer, scoring 16 points in the game’s first 20 minutes as the Broncos led by as many as 14 points.
Brewer rallied within 37-36 midway through the third quarter before Safford made a 3-pointer and Noah Burditt scored to give Hampden to a 42-36 cushion.
But just as quickly as the Broncos regained some momentum, it was lost.
Safford drew his fourth foul with 1:45 left in the third quarter, and when he bounced the ball during the aftermath of the play, it bounded off the court and he was assessed a technical foul — a fifth personal foul that meant he had fouled out of the game.
“I stayed away from him for 48 hours after that,” said Bartlett. “Then we met and talked about what happened, and Graham said he was upset because he was going to have to come out of the game because of the fourth foul, not because of the call. Then he flipped the ball away and it went into the food court, so it looked bad.”
It became even worse when Brewer outscored the Broncos 23-8 the rest of the way for a 59-50 win.
“We definitely lost a little sooner than we should have, and for me the technical foul put the most negative spin on it as possible,” said Safford. “Losing is one thing, but not being able to be on the floor with your teammates at the end of the season is a bummer.
“You kind of get a feeling during the game of how it’s going, and I definitely thought we were going to win but I just watched it slip away as I was sitting on the bench. I definitely won’t make that mistake again. I let my teammates down, and especially as a senior I don’t want to see that happen again.”
Senior success, and sorrow
Safford returned this winter as the Broncos’ only returning starter, and with that his responsibilities grew.
“This year he has to be the man for us,” said Bartlett. “Last year we had some older guys like Jacob and Noah who were leaders, but this year we needed Graham to step into that role.”
Again Safford started quickly, scoring 29 points as the Broncos opened their season with a 65-52 win over Bangor.
That individual offense has been a constant, with Safford scoring in double figures in all but one game while averaging 18.5 points per outing.
“Me and my coach talked at the beginning of the year about me having to be a little more selfish,” said Safford, “not necessarily in a scoring sense but in a make-a-play sense. I’ve had to adjust a little bit. I’ve played with a lot of great players, and as a point guard you have to have that feeling about when to get them the ball and then let them make plays.”
Safford also ranked among the KVAC leaders in assists (5.5 per game), steals (3.8) and rebounds (6.8).
“Graham is easily the most unselfish great player I’ve seen,” said Bartlett. “He does what you need. If you need scoring, he’ll go out and score. If you need a facilitator, he’ll do that for you.
“Some of his biggest games have come against the strongest teams, because those are the nights that he’ll see that we need 15 to 20 shots from him instead of 10 to 15.”
Safford also achieved a specific personal goal, being named to the KVAC All-Defensive team.
“I remember one thing Gordon said to me his senior year,” said Safford. “He got player of the year, but he also made first-team all-defense and he said to me, ‘That’s the one I wanted.’
“I made first-team all-defense this year, and that’s the one I’m really proud of.”
But another successful regular season wasn’t without adversity for Safford, this time when his father David Hollis died on Christmas Day after a lengthy illness.
Safford didn’t miss any games, in part as a tribute to his dad.
“He was sick for a while, and it definitely helped that we had time to prepare ourselves for what was going to happen,” said Safford. “And from a basketball standpoint, every time I step onto the court I know he’s with me and I’m blessed that I can still play the game.
“We used to go to the gym quite a bit. He played a little bit in Camden and taught me a few things, and I kind of adapted them to the newer generation.”
The future, near and far
A potential scholarship player at either the Division I or Division II level, Safford has parlayed the skills he learned from his father and various coaches into a college basketball future.
He turned down a scholarship offer at Division I Longwood University of Farmville, Va., and expects to attend Division III Bates College in Lewiston, where he was accepted on an early decision basis.
“You want to have your college paid for if you can, and for some of us who play a lot of basketball you’d like to get it paid for with an athletic scholarship,” said Safford. “But I think it all comes with maturity, guys figure out what they want.
“For some guys that’s playing basketball at the highest level they can, but for me I focus more on the education part. I wouldn’t really say I really gave in, because I could have played at a D-I or D-II level, but there were some other things that I had to think about as well.”
For the next two weeks, Safford’s thoughts will be focused on leading Hampden deep into postseason play.
Hampden enters Saturday’s 5:30 p.m Eastern Maine Class A quarterfinal against Lewiston with a 15-3 record, and is seen as one of three favorites for the regional title along with top-seeded Bangor and two-time defending EM champion Edward Little of Auburn.
The Broncos may be without 6-foot-7 junior center Fred Knight, who was sidelined late in the regular season with a hip injury and whose tournament status is uncertain.
“If we don’t have Fred we’ll have to adjust, but the big thing is to stay consistent with our play and make sure we’re peaking at the right time,” said Safford.
“We want to go as far as we can, and I’m going to be on the court to end the game this year, that’s my goal.”