JONESPORT, Maine — The expectations for basketball success have been high at Jonesport-Beals for generations.
And those hopes have been rejuvenated over the last three years, first when a team featuring sophomores and freshmen narrowly lost its Eastern Maine Class D semifinal to the eventual state champion, Schenck of East Millinocket.
Then, last February, a Royals team led by juniors and sophomores advanced to the regional final before suffering a stunning loss to the eventual state champion, Central Aroostook of Mars Hill.
Now point guard Matthew Alley and 6-foot-6 center Justin Alley are seniors and 6-5 forward Garet Beal is a junior, teammates with one final opportunity to realize their shared dream together.
“I think that might be the motivator, knowing that this is our last chance,” said Beal after Jonesport-Beals remained unbeaten with a 68-42 victory over Calais. “I’ve grown up with these kids, and this is our last chance to do it together so we’re really working our rears off trying to make it happen.”
While the trio of Matthew Alley, Justin Alley and Beal are a combined 41-6 at Jonesport-Beals since the start of the 2009-2010 season, they and their teammates face a daunting legacy each time they walk into the school gymnasium and past the trophy case where the nine gold basketballs won by the Royals between 1970 and 1993 are on display — including five straight between 1970 and 1974.
The modern-day Royals have rekindled memories of those glory days on Moosabec Reach but postseason frustrations have left both the players and their fans unfulfilled.
That was particularly true last winter, when Jonesport-Beals experienced a gut-wrenching three-game Eastern D tournament run. First it outlasted upset-minded Fort Fairfield 72-70 in the quarterfinals, then it withstood a record-setting barrage of 20 3-pointers by Washburn to outscore the Beavers 84-72 in the semifinals.
But two days later, that high-scoring offense was shut down by Central Aroostook’s inverted triangle-and-two defense. Central Aroostook went on to win the state title, and Jonesport-Beals went home stunned after the 49-26 defeat.
Coach Vinnie MacLean was one victim of that loss, as he was not rehired during the off-season.
Now the team has regrouped under MacLean’s friend and former assistant coach Gordon Faulkingham, and the Royals are off to a strong start.
Jonesport-Beals is averaging 77.4 points per game through its 7-0 start, with an average victory margin of 25.5 points per game and no victory by fewer than 17 points.
The Royals’ first test was due to come against Class C Calais, but Beal — named to the Bangor Daily News All-Maine third team after last season — scored a career-high 40 points as Jonesport-Beals cruised past the previously unbeaten Blue Devils.
“They’re a heck of a team,” said Calais coach Ed Leeman. “They’re a strong team and they played mentally and physically tough [Tuesday night]. That’s a credit to them. They’ve grown and matured and hopefully they’ll carry that with them into the tournament.”
Faulkingham and Beal agree the maturity the players have gained by playing through the highs and lows of the last two years has been a factor in their play to date this winter.
There’s also a renewed sense of the importance of defense, a lesson the Royals learned the hard way in last year’s loss to Central Aroostook.
“Defensively I think we’re ready and we’re handling pressure better,” said Beal. “Last year we had a good season, but once we got to the tournament the pressure set in. This year we have a different team.”
The veterans among the Royals know that getting through this year’s tournament won’t be easy. Central Aroostook also is undefeated and riding the confidence that comes to a program that has won four state championships in the last seven years, while Washburn returns another team capable of shooting any opponent out of the Bangor Auditorium.
And the regular season won’t be without its challenges — upcoming are back-to-back road games at 5-1 Greenville on Jan. 13 and at 8-1 Sumner of East Sullivan, an Eastern C finalist last winter, on Jan. 16.
The key to finishing what the Royals have started this winter rests with a basic basketball concept, Faulkingham believes.
“The kids are playing very well together,” he said. “There’s not the one-and-done anymore. We’re passing the ball really well, and we’re playing with urgency. Some of these kids know that this is our last go-around.
“We’re playing like a team right now, and if we play like a team we’re going to be tough to beat.”