CORINTH — It has been a gradual rebuilding process for the Central High School boys basketball program.
Not since 2006 have the Red Devils qualified for tournament play, and the 2011 and 2012 seasons produced winless finishes.
But Central showed significant signs of progress this winter under fourth-year head coach Curt Davis, its 5-13 record leaving it just 4½ Heal points short of qualifying for a Eastern Maine Class C preliminary-round berth.
“It was definitely a big step in the right direction,” said Tony Underhill, a junior guard and three-year varsity player for the Red Devils.
And the growth wasn’t confined to the basketball court, as evidenced by various examples of team building from within and community involvement that has led to the Central squad being named one of two 2013 Maine Red Claws/Maine McDonald’s Team of the Year Award recipients.
“We’re pretty happy with it,” said Davis. “It was a little unexpected, but it’s nice to be recognized like this.”
Members of the Central boys varsity basketball team are Underhill, Brady Bubar, Brandon Buzzell, Chris Eriksson, Kyle Ham, Joseph Nawojczyk, Dylan Moore, Andrew Prescott, Grant Poulin, Ben Shearstone, Jordan Smith, Riley Stefanik, Brian Vargas and managers Devin Pierce, Taylor Robichaud and Brooke Speed.
The Maine Red Claws/Maine McDonald’s Team of the Year Awards annually honor two Maine high school varsity basketball teams -– one boys and one girls -– that have made an exceptional impact on Maine high school basketball and in the lives of others through community service, exemplifying sportsmanship, team competitiveness and spirit, and commitment to academic excellence.
Eleven teams statewide were nominated this year.
The Central boys and this year’s schoolgirl award recipient from Marshwood High School in South Berwick both received $1,000 for their respective basketball programs and were honored at Sunday’s Maine Red Claws NBA Developmental League game at the Portland Expo.
“Both of these programs are shining examples of what it means to be named team of the year — excellence on the court and in the community,” said McDonald’s local owner-operator Doug Quagliaroli.
Among Central’s community-based activities this winter and in recent seasons were bottle drives that raised money to provide turkeys for the food cupboards that serve SAD 64’s five communities — Bradford, Corinth, Hudson, Kenduskeag and Stetson.
A subsequent bottle drive this year raised money for a donation to the Pine Tree Camp, and a later drawing generated a donation to the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the annual Coaches vs. Cancer effort undertaken across the country.
“When we did the bottle drives it would always be two or three of us doing it together at a time,” said Underhill. “It definitely brought us together pretty well.”
Another key component of the team’s growth came from within, with team members and coaches working together to ensure the academic success of each individual.
“We’re trying to help the kids not only to be good ballplayers but to be good student-athletes, too, because hopefully they’ll go on to become the future leaders of the community,” said Davis. “What we do is hold each other accountable as players but always try to help each other out. We’ve talked about how when you miss a practice it affects everyone on the team, and we speak about academics on a daily basis, that’s a priority for us.”
Last year two players did not survive the full season academically, but this winter everyone remained eligible and the team earned a collective B average in the classroom with several players making the honor roll.
“Coach tells us that basketball should be a big part of this, but that academics come first because without passing the academics you can’t play basketball,” said Underhill.
In addition, the team was committed to a “dress for success” campaign. The Red Devils conducted 50-50 raffles that raised about $1,200, initially to help defray the cost of dress clothes for players who might not be able to afford them and then to purchase matching sweater vests and other garments that enabled the team to dress similarly for games.
“We began doing these things a couple of years ago,” said Davis. “One of the pillars to being a good basketball program is to build on the morals of the family, and we’ve tried to do that as well as give back to the community.”
The school’s junior varsity team under coach Butch Pierce also participated in the projects and the effort also received considerable parental support, Davis said.
“It’s a stone in the wall,” he added. “To be able to build something you’ve got to have a good foundation, and this is part of it.”
The Marshwood girls basketball team voted to donate its share of the 50-50 raffles from two home games to Project Purple — a substance abuse initiative founded by former NBA player Chris Herren — and the Pease Greeters of Portsmouth, N.H., who meet and greet military flights that are leaving for or returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.
The team also volunteered at basketball clinics for the Marshwood Youth League each Sunday starting in January.
“I think what really sets this team apart is their willingness to reach out,” said Marshwood coach Lee Petrie. “Their overall pride they carry with them whenever they represent Marshwood is so obvious in their actions and behaviors on and off the court.”
Marshwood finished the season with a 9-10 record after qualifying for the Western Maine Class A preliminary round.