Jason Cassidy grew up surrounded the by trappings of championship basketball in his native Calais.
But when he was named the boys varsity coach at Gardiner Area High School five years ago, he inherited a program with no such history — the Tigers had never so much as appeared in a regional championship game.
Five years later, Cassidy and his team are making their own history after compiling a school single-season record 19 victories, winning the Eastern Maine Class B championship and advancing to Friday night’s state final against Yarmouth at the Bangor Auditorium.
Game time is approximately 8:45 p.m., after the 7 p.m. girls final between Presque Isle and Lake Region of Naples.
“It feels awesome,” Cassidy said after the Tigers defeated Mount Desert Island 70-58 in the Eastern Maine title game. “We’ve worked hard for it. The players have worked hard for it and the coaching staff has worked hard for it, so it’s not by fluke at all. We’ve worked hard to change some principles that were here before us and it’s paid off for us.”
Cassidy played at Calais in the late 1980s and 1990 under coach Arnold Clark, who had considerable success with the Blue Devils and continues as one of the region’s top coaches with the neighboring Woodland High School girls basketball team.
During Cassidy’s senior season, Clark guided Calais to the Eastern Maine championship game before the Blue Devils fell to John Bapst of Bangor, but the principles he learned from that experience remain a core part of his coaching philosophy today.
“It was a big part of my life growing up,” he said. “The guys I played with are my best friends in life. It’s hard to be away from those guys, but being a teacher I can get home during the summer to see them and Arnold’s boys both live in Southern Maine, and with my brother Matt and the other guys on the team we all get together when we can.
“And as far as basketball goes, I’ve studied [current Calais coach] Eddie Leeman, I’ve studied Arnold, and I’ve used those guys as references when I went for jobs.”
Cassidy went on to serve an assistant coach under Mike McGee at Lawrence High School.
But with his wife working in Portland, he opted to move south and took a job in the Gardiner school system, where he served as a middle-school athletic administrator and basketball coach before getting the varsity job before the start of the 2007-08 season — the Tigers’ first in Class B after dropping from Class A by enrollment.
Since then Cassidy has guided Gardiner to four winning seasons and a 60-37 overall record, including a trip to the regional semifinals last winter and now their first EM crown.
“I think it’s his passion that’s the big thing,” said Gardiner senior center Aaron Toman, who has helped this year’s team compile a 19-2 record heading into the state final against 17-4 Yarmouth. “He’s real fiery, he gets us pumped up. He loves the game, he loves us and cares about us. He makes us want to work harder, and he’s a great teacher of the game.”
And all the while Cassidy has remained a student of the game, drawing knowledge from Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference coaching peers such as McGee, Jeff Hart of Camden Hills of Rockport and Nick DePatsy of Medomak Valley of Waldoboro, along with members of his current staff that include longtime former Gardiner head coach Art Warren and former University of Maine standout Sean McNally, a Gardiner alumnus.
And, of course, the Calais connection remains prominent.
“There are a lot of good people in the Calais area and a lot of good people in this [central Maine] area who are willing to mentor young guys,” Cassidy said. “I’ve got some young guys on my bench now so I’ll try to pass that tradition on.”
Friday’s first game will feature a rematch of the 2006 Class B girls final, during which Presque Isle defeated Lake Region 48-36.
Presque Isle (21-0) is back in the state final for the first time since then, after rarely being challenged during the regular season and defeating John Bapst of Bangor, Gardiner and Nokomis all by double digits to win its regional title.
Coach Jeff Hudson’s club features a blend of experience and youth, with veterans such as tournament MVP Chandler Guerrette, Chelsea Nickerson, Kayla Richards and Meredith Stewart teaming with impact freshmen Hannah Graham and Krystal Kingsbury.
The Wildcats will seek to complete the program’s first undefeated season since 1997, when Presque Isle won the second of its two Class A state championships behind the year’s Miss Maine Basketball, Kim Condon.
Lake Region was the No. 1 seed for the Western B tournament and defeated Yarmouth, defending state champion Leavitt of Turner Center and Greely of Cumberland Center to win its first regional crown since 2008, the third of three straight WM crowns for the Lakers.
Coach Paul True’s defensive-minded Lakers (19-2) are led by Western B tournament MVP Sydney Hancock, a junior point guard, and 6-foot sophomore center Tiana-Jo Carter.