HOULTON, Maine — The Houlton High School boys basketball team is off to a fast start in pursuit of its first winning regular season since 2007.
But that’s just a way station toward the Shiretowners’ ultimate aspiration — not only matching the state championship won by the Houlton boys soccer team this fall but winning the final high school basketball game to be played at the Bangor Auditorium before it is torn down next year and replaced by the Cross Insurance Center now under construction.
That’s the Class C boys state final in that sport, scheduled for Saturday, March 2, 2013.
“That’s THE goal,” said sophomore Kyle Bouchard, a key member of both the Houlton soccer and basketball teams. “That’s not one of the goals, that’s THE goal.”
Houlton will take a 5-0 record, good for first place in Eastern Maine Class C, into Wednesday night’s rivalry game at home against 4-0 Hodgdon, itself a contender in Eastern D.
It’s a far cry from the Shiretowners’ start last winter, when they won just two of their first seven regular-season games before rebounding to enter postseason play with an 8-10 record and then surging all the way to the regional final, where they took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter before falling to Lee Academy 58-47.
“I think we have higher expectations this year,” said second-year head coach Rob Moran. “Last year we came out of the blue toward the end of the year. Expectation-wise we’re better but we need to improve a lot of things. I think our defense needs to get better and our half-court execution on offense needs to get better, but I think we’re a pretty solid team. Generally we’re pretty good defensively, and we have some good players.”
The cast of good players is led by Bouchard, a 6-foot-4 sophomore forward who is averaging 20.4 points per game through five games this season after being named All-Penobscot Valley Conference first team and Bangor Daily News All-Maine honorable mention, as well as co-MVP of the Eastern C tournament, as a freshman.
“Last year we were coming off a 3-15 season so we didn’t know what to expect,” said Bouchard. “We had a lot of young guys. We still have a lot of young guys, but we know what we’re capable of and now it’s less what we want to do and more what we can do and what we’re going to do.”
Bouchard is joined in the starting lineup by senior forward Daniel Swallow and three juniors in guards Kole Buzzeo, Nick Guiod and 6-4 center Elyjah Crockett, with sophomores Daniel Howe, Isaac Cone and Jacob Drew and senior Isaiah Straubel providing the foundation of a deep Shiretowners’ bench.
“I think we’re a little deeper than we were last season,” said Moran, “and hopefully as the season goes on the roles will be a little more defined and they’ll accept those roles because you always need role players.”
Wednesday night’s game against Hodgdon is expected to be Houlton’s first major test since a 69-62 victory on Dec. 13 at Class B Presque Isle — the Wildcats’ only loss so far this season.
“It was a huge boost of confidence because we knew coming into the season that we could beat anybody but we also knew we could lose to anybody if we didn’t play well,” said Guiod. “We hit our foul shots in that game and played really well as a team.”
Bouchard led the way in the Presque Isle win with 25 points, one short of his season high of 26 last Saturday in Houlton’s 68-21 win at Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln.
“It was nice to win up there, it was the first time it’s happened in a while,” said Moran. “We played them in the summer and we beat them then, so I think the kids expect to win some of those games. Nothing against Presque Isle, they’re a great team, but we went into it thinking if we played well we’d have a chance to win.”
Houlton also enters Wednesday’s game as one of four undefeated teams left in Eastern C along with Lee, Penquis Valley of Milo and Calais.
All four are expected to contend for the regional championship, but Houlton hopes its returning experience from last February’s title game helps get it over the top this winter.
“We were awful young last year,” said Moran. “There were times last year when we started three freshmen and there were some games we started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Just that alone is going to help, and some of the kids who are now sophomores don’t play like sophomores. I think we’re a lot more mature.”