BANGOR, Maine — Given Central Aroostook’s tradition of excellence in the Eastern Maine Class D boys basketball ranks, the Panthers always seem to factor into the equation.
As far as head coach Tim Brewer is concerned, that didn’t count for a lot when the 2012-2013 season began last November.
“It is a rebuilding year,” Brewer insisted after Central Aroostook claimed its seventh regional championship and its fifth in the last nine years with a 58-55 overtime victory over Aroostook County rival Hodgdon in Saturday’s title game at the Bangor Auditorium.
The Panthers take a 17-5 record into Saturday’s 10:45 a.m. state game against Forest Hills of Jackman on the final day of basketball at the Auditorium.
CAHS graduated four seniors, including three starters, off the 2011 squad that went 18-3 and lost in the EM semifinals.
“Everyone told us this was going to be a rebuilding year for CA,” said junior forward Steven Decker, one of two returning starters. “We took that as motivation.”
Did the Panthers believe that assessment, which was even espoused by their coach?
“Not for a minute,” Decker said after he sank three free throws in the last 34 seconds of overtime to lift his team to victory.
CAHS had stumbled down the stretch, losing four of its last five regular-season games. The Panthers recovered and hit their stride — not a moment too soon.
In their preliminary-round contest against No. 14 Schenck of East Millinocket, CAHS trailed by 13 points with eight minutes to play. The Panthers forced overtime and won.
“My kids found themselves in that fourth quarter,” Brewer said.
“We weren’t putting as much effort out as we have been to get to this point,” he explained. “They found out that we actually have another notch or two [in terms of intensity].”
After escaping with the win, the Panthers had the confidence they needed. They beat upstart Katahdin in the quarterfinals, then edged No. 2 Washburn in overtime in the semis.
“I was sixth man last year and Steven [Decker] was a starter, but then this year we had to step up and do what we needed to do,” said senior guard Joe Stiles, who was joined in the regular rotation by sophomore guard Chandler Brewer, the coach’s son, sophomore forward Zach McClung and junior forward Spencer Garrison.
The Panthers opened the season by winning their first nine games, including one-point victories over Hodgdon and Easton. The streak ended against Class C Fort Kent.
Coach Brewer said his team also had to work through some injuries that hampered players at different times.
By the time the tournament rolled around, Central Aroostook was battle-tested after taking on the likes of Washburn, Hodgdon, Katahdin and Easton, which had a combined regular-season record of 42-12, along with Fort Kent (8-10).
“We had a tough schedule this year,” coach Brewer offered. “Four of our losses were tight games.
He has been pleased with his veterans’ ability to elevate their play when they need it most.
“They seem to rise to the occasion and play better when we play better competition,” he added.
The Panthers’ roster also includes senior Derek Rusby, juniors Mason Davis and Jacob Canney, sophomores Alex Folsom and Emery Davis and freshmen Dan Kingsbury, Riley McGrath and Dustin Pryor.
McClung is one of the team members who has enjoyed working his way into the mix.
“This year is my first time starting, on the Bangor Auditorium floor, winning the Eastern Maine championship. It’s exciting,” he said.
Ultimately, Central Aroostook players who have grown up around the Panthers’ success are proud to now be an active part of it.
“We have a great program here, a historic program, especially here at the ‘Mecca,’” Decker said.
The Panthers are 6-0 all time in state championship games, including 2-0 at the Bangor Auditorium.