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Unique game plan gives Acadia Christian standout with heart defect a second chance at basketball

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 8:47 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 17, 2012, at 6:12 a.m.
Brandon Hagan of Jonesport thought his high school basketball career was over when he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.   Acadia Christian of Trenton basketball coach Troy Alley, also of Jonesport, (right) eventually devised a game strategy that allowed Hagan to return to the court and also help lead the team to its best season in the school's history.
Gabor Degre/BDN
Brandon Hagan of Jonesport thought his high school basketball career was over when he was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Acadia Christian of Trenton basketball coach Troy Alley, also of Jonesport, (right) eventually devised a game strategy that allowed Hagan to return to the court and also help lead the team to its best season in the school's history.

TRENTON, Maine — A tinge of disappointment crossed Brandon Hagan’s face when reminded that there will be no trip to the tournament for his Acadia Christian boys basketball team this year, and that the following evening’s game against East Grand would be his last.

Not that the Seahawks weren’t already successful. Acadia Christian, which won just once in its varsity history before this winter, returned from that final trek to Danforth last week having completed its season with a 10-8 record.

But while its strength of schedule wasn’t sufficient to make the Eastern Maine Class D postseason field, the team is savoring a breakthrough season and Hagan is cherishing a most unlikely return to competitive sport.

“It’s meant everything to me,” said the 18-year-old Hagan, a 6-foot-1-inch senior forward who was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition called bicuspid aortic valve disease while a freshman at Narraguagus High School in Harrington and was told he could never play organized basketball again.

But given a second chance this year — albeit in the highly unique manner of playing just offense and almost never crossing half court in order to prevent overworking himself beyond the limits of his condition — both he and his team thrived.

Hagan was one of Eastern Maine’s top scorers at 21 points per game in helping Acadia Christian have a season to remember even if it didn’t end at the Bangor Auditorium.

“Ever since I’ve been able to play again it’s been phenomenal,” Hagan said. “I can’t thank my coach and teammates enough, because without them I wouldn’t be able to do this. It’s definitely an opportunity I’m very appreciative of.”

Following a tradition

Hagan was born in Jonesport and introduced to the sport as a youngster growing up amid the memories of the legendary state championship Jonesport-Beals High School teams of the 1970s and 1980s, teams that became synonymous with small-school basketball in Maine.

He played youth basketball in Jonesport and neighboring Addison before enrolling at Narraguagus four years ago, but just as he began playing junior varsity basketball for the Knights, a physical exam revealed an abnormality ultimately diagnosed as BAVD, a condition involving blood flow between the heart and aorta.

Hagan was required to limit stress on his heart in order to live with the condition, which meant he could no longer play full-court basketball.

“It was very depressing,” he said. “I came out of the doctor’s office bawling my eyes out, just wicked upset because I had been playing basketball since I was little and I was looking forward to playing in high school.”

Hagan subsequently had two health incidents that resulted in him being airlifted to the hospital, but neither was directly related to BAVD. One was diagnosed as a panic attack, the second a reaction to blood pressure medication.

Hagan remained at Narraguagus through his sophomore year, but without the lure of basketball his motivation waned so he left school to try home schooling while also working as a lobsterman.

“I was still kind of upset because I couldn’t play basketball anymore,” he said, “so I figured this way I could graduate sooner by doing home schooling and I could still work.”

But as Hagan became more involved with work his home schooling took a back seat, so after more than a year out of school he and his father, Craig Robinson, began considering other options.

Enter Troy Alley, a fellow Jonesport resident who had become a teacher, athletic administrator and basketball coach at Acadia Christian, a K-12 school that this year is home to 19 high school-age students.

“My dad talked to Mr. Alley and mentioned to him about getting help with my home schooling,” Hagan said. “Mr. Alley mentioned about me possibly coming here where he already was teaching and if I came up here they would work with me and I could get my education.”

Alley and his wife, Bobbie, had grown up with Hagen’s mother, Deanna, who died of cancer when Brandon was 9, but he hadn’t had much contact with the younger Hagan in recent years. Still, he was willing to help.

“Bobbie suggested I have a talk with him,” Alley said, “so I did and I talked with the principal here and told her the situation and she said to bring him to school, we’ll make it work.

“Next day, lo and behold, Brandon’s riding to school with me.”

Back to basketball

On the first day Hagan made the 75-minute commute to Acadia Christian with Alley in early October, he immediately noticed the school’s gymnasium and kids having fun playing basketball.

He admits he never totally gave up the sport in aftermath of his diagnosis, jumping into pickup games when he could.

“Anytime I could get my hands on a basketball I’d still want to play,” Hagan said. “I never figured I could actually play for a high school team again, but I loved the sport so I used to play pickup all the time.

“I could feel when I needed to back off when I was pushing too hard so I’d take a break or play a little less and then I could go back to what I was doing.”

When he saw the basketball environment at Acadia Christian, Hagan couldn’t resist, so he joined some of the school’s other players for an impromptu game.

“The first time I saw him I thought, ‘He looks like a ballplayer,’” said Derek Sargent, an Acadia Christian senior and a fourth-year member of the Seahawks’ basketball team.

News of the noontime game didn’t go over so well with Alley.

“The first day he’s here everybody’s at lunch and one of the teachers came down to me and said, ‘Troy, you might want to go to the gym,’” Alley said. “So I go down to the gym and Brandon’s just going at it and I holler at him, ‘What are you doing?’

“And he said, ‘My doctor said I could play pickup, I just can’t play in a game.’ He wanted to play basketball so badly, but I knew he couldn’t play so I told him he was here to go to school, he wasn’t here to play basketball so let’s move beyond that.”

Hagan soon visited an area heart specialist for an update on his condition and was told it hadn’t changed — no full-court basketball was allowed.

“I asked the doctor if he could just go out on the court during a game, stand on one end of the floor and shoot,” said Alley. “She said yes, so long as there was no running and jumping. That’s basically what it boiled down to.”

But once preseason practices began for the Seahawks, Hagan watched the workouts while waiting for his ride home, all the while dreaming of one more chance.

“We talked after the first day of school about what I could and couldn’t do,” Hagan said, “but every time I looked at coach it was kind of like looking at a hope that I could play again.”

Alley was reluctant to fuel those hopes.

“He’d come to practice and want to do drills and I’d say no and he’d get mad at me and I’d tell him I was just following doctor’s orders,” Alley said. “I said he could be part of the team and travel with us and be the manager if he wanted, and even to do that we got a release from his dad. And since Brandon’s 18 we got him to sign a release, too.”

Hagan persisted, and finally convinced both his coach and his father that a limited return to basketball might be possible given the premise that he could stand on the court and shoot so long as there was little other movement.

“When I first came home with the idea of playing again my dad was a little upset with me because he thought I was going to be playing full court, all-out, all the time. He really didn’t want that,” Hagan said. “Then coach talked to him and explained that I’d be playing half court and barely moving, and he was definitely excited for me because he knew how much I wanted the opportunity to play one more time.”

Alley picked very specific situations for reintroducing Hagan to high school basketball.

“In our first game against Highview Christian [of Charleston], we had the ball with 13 seconds left in the first half in a dead-ball situation, so I told Brandon to go in and get out on the wing and stand there,” he said. “We got the ball inbounds and passed it to him, and he banged a 3-pointer right through the bottom of the net.

“I took him back out, and he asked if he could play in the second half and I said no, I wasn’t taking any chances. But then we got to the end of the game and there were about 20 seconds left in another dead-ball situation so I told Brandon to go back in and stand out on the wing.

“Sure enough we got the ball to him again and sure enough he banged it through the bottom of the net again.”

Alley could see both talent and desire in Hagan. But was there a way to provide his part-time player even more of an opportunity given his medical limitations?

“After that I started thinking, what can I do with this kid?” Alley said. “Then one night we were scrimmaging against some of the fathers and I said, ‘Brandon, go in the game.’ He asked me if he could play, and I told him to go to the offensive end and stand there because we were going to try something.

“I had the other guys play a diamond [1-2-1 zone] defense, and I knew I was asking a lot of them because they would have to play four-on-five on defense while Brandon stayed at the other end. But that’s how it started.”

A contributing factor

Hagan’s time on the court increased as Acadia Christian progressed through its schedule, with him typically stationed on the right wing or near the basket on the offensive end while his teammates played the full 84-foot length of the court.

“I’d take the ball to the basket on the offensive end when I get it or dribble it back out to the top to set it back up,” said Hagan. “I’d move around with the ball, but without the ball I stayed in my spot and didn’t move much because if I did I’d hear it from the bench saying to stand still.”

There were times when Hagan stretched the limits imposed on him by Alley, such as applying defensive pressure in the back court or even sneaking beyond the half-court line to harass an opposing point guard from behind.

When he made those moves, he heard about it.

“I guarantee there hasn’t been a coach of any team we’ve played all year that hasn’t heard me yell ‘are you all right, how do you feel?’” Alley said. “I ask him a hundred times a game, and he always says ‘coach, I feel great.’”

As Hagan’s minutes and point production increased, so did the defensive focus placed upon him by other teams — usually with mixed results.

Forest Hills of Jackman, which concluded its regular season with a 15-3 record good for second place in Western Maine Class D, defeated Acadia Christian twice this winter. But Hagan averaged 24.5 points in the two games against a Forest Hills defense that allowed entire opposing teams just 42 points per contest.

“First of all he’s a nice kid,” said Forest Hills coach Anthony Amero. “But he’s also a strong player. He can shoot the three, he can post up and he handles the ball real well.

“And he doesn’t force his shots, he lets the offense come to him. He reminds me of an old-school Jonesport-Beals player I remember watching when I was a kid. He’s not flashy, but he’s the type of player you look for as a coach.”

Hagan presented some unique strategic challenges for opposing coaches, though not necessarily what Alley anticipated when he devised his game plan.

“What I thought was that the other teams would play just four on offense and keep someone back with Brandon,” Alley said. “But there hasn’t been one team that’s kept someone back. As soon as we get a rebound they’re tearing back as fast as they can, but we’ve probably had 20 times when we’ve been able to hit him with a long pass.”

For Amero, the challenges were two-fold — how to contend with what he described as Acadia Christian’s “diamond-and-none” defense, and how to prevent those full-court outlet passes to Hagan.

“We’ve had a little experience with things like this before with our boys and girls teams, because being from a small school and playing against small schools sometimes you have a situation where you finish the game with four kids on the court and it can really throw you off track,” Amero said. “But defensively you prepare for them as if it’s a diamond-and-one with one kid on your best man.

“The other thing we try to do is smother their rebounder so he can’t make the long outlet pass.

“But I’ve got to hand it to coach Alley, he’s done a great job of getting every ounce of ability out of his players.”

A team effort

Hagan’s offensive presence has been a welcome addition to the Acadia Christian roster this season, especially for teammates who had rarely experienced on-court success with the Seahawks.

“Going out on the court, everyone has a specific set of skills,” Sargent said. “Me personally I can’t do what Brandon does. He’s magic with the ball, and I have more of a skill set of playing defense and boxing out. Everyone has their own set of skills, and I think we all feel like we’ve brought those together as a team.

“It’s not about points with us. We’re at the point where we just want to win so badly and he’s helping us get there so we’ll help him get us to where we want to be.”

The presence of Alley, who is in his first year at Acadia Christian after previous coaching stints at both the high school and college levels, has had a similar impact.

“Starting the season our hope was to just go out and be able to compete with other teams,” Sargent said. “The game we won in the past was a game we probably shouldn’t have won, so just to be able to come out this year and compete and not be a floor mat for these other teams is great. We’re competing with these teams, and we’ve won [10] games and that’s a testament to our coach.”

Both Hagan and Alley deflect such credit, instead directing it toward the other players on the seven-man roster — Sargent, Henry Olearcek, Adam Olearcek, Shayn Wescott, Caleb Linnehan and Zachary Williams — for their willingness to accept their roles within this unique team concept.

“I definitely respect Mr. Alley and my teammates for letting me play with them because the team has to push 110 percent more when I’m not back on defense with them,” Hagan said. “I know it’s a struggle for them, but they still include me as one of their own. I want to be back there helping them on defense so bad, but it shows me how much my team is pushing just so I can play. They give it everything they’ve got.”

Alley admits he might not have been quite as amenable to such personal offensive sacrifices back when he played for his father, longtime former Jonesport-Beals coach Ordman Alley. But he sees everyone on the Acadia Christian team growing from the experience.

“When I played, if I had worked my tail off on defense to then have to throw the ball down to the other end of the court for someone else to make a layup it might not have gone as well,” he said. “It would have been tough for me, but these kids have bought into it for the most part.

“Everyone’s got a role, and in being part of a team some people do some things better than others. Brandon’s role on our team is to score. I’ve got other kids who can score, too, and they’ve done a great job. But I asked the kids if they would rather score 40 points and lose or one point and win, and were we a better team with Brandon on the court, did we have a better chance of winning with him out there? They all agreed that we did.”

Hagan’s return to school also has reinvigorated him educationally. Less than a year after being out of the classroom, he now hopes to study auto mechanics after he graduates from Acadia Christian.

“My dad used to be a mechanic in the Army,” Hagan said. “I’ve watched him work on the cars in the yard and I’ve become very interested in it, so now that’s something I want to do.”

In the meantime, there’s a senior season of basketball memories for Hagan to savor — memories he never thought would be his to savor.

“I’m still upset about what happened,” he said, “but I’m just glad to be able to finish out my senior year playing. It’s what I always wanted ever since I got my diagnosis. It’s been great.”

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