WASHBURN, Maine — The driveways along State Route 164 in Aroostook County are dotted with basketball hoops, a flashback to a generation ago when such venues provided the primary off-season training ground for aspiring players.
Larry and Kim Worcester’s driveway similarly has a basketball hoop off to one side, and while it surely has served its traditional purpose it also symbolizes one of their family’s great passions.
The Worcesters, including son Mitch and daughter Mackenzie, are among a significant number of families statewide for whom basketball season doesn’t end at the conclusion of the annual high school tournament.
In some respects it’s really just beginning, as the focus quickly shifts to all-star travel teams and weekly trips to southern Maine and throughout New England for tournament play — perhaps leading to national-level competition come summer.
“It’s gotten to the point now where it’s more of a lifestyle thing because it’s grown on us and we love it so much,” said Mitch, a senior at Washburn District High School who was a 2013 Mr. Basketball finalist and completed his high school career as one of the state’s all-time leading scorers with 2,297 points.
Mitch’s point production is not unique within the family. Larry Worcester, a former standout at Penquis Valley High School in Milo, went on to surpass 1,000 career points while playing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Kim Worcester topped 1,000 points during her high school career at Washburn, where she helped the Beavers win a Class D state championship in 1986.
And Mackenzie, a high school sophomore, already has scored 1,007 career points while helping her team win back-to-back state titles the last two winters.
The two brands of the sport, interscholastic and travel basketball, sometimes are seen as competing against each other, but Larry Worcester — superintendent of schools for SAD 24 in Van Buren — sees it differently.
“Sometimes AAU gets looked at differently because it’s not as regulated as MPA basketball, but there are some great coaches out there, too, and for us it works,” said Larry, also a former high school coach and a one-time member of the Maine Principals’ Association basketball committee. “I think for the most part they complement each other, but there’s that little bit of a tug there at times.”
The Worcester children also see differences between the high school and travel basketball seasons, but their goals for both are basically the same — to become better players and experience success while feeding their love of the game.
“When competing in high school you don’t want to let your teammates down and you don’t want to let your community down because they’re all rooting for you,” said Mackenzie, also her school’s career and single-season goal-scoring leader in girls soccer. “In AAU it’s more that you don’t want to let yourself down, along with your teammates there. But winning the games there doesn’t really go toward anything like winning the gold ball in high school, it’s just that coaches in AAU look more at you singly.”
Travel basketball often means long hours and major mileage, with family members leaving home Friday afternoon for weekend destinations ranging from Bangor — some 175 miles from Washburn — to southern New England.
Mitch Worcester experienced that routine for several years until this spring, when he stepped away from the AAU circuit to focus on weight and strength training in anticipation of walking on to the University of Maine basketball team next fall as a nonscholarship player.
Mackenzie Worcester routinely competes in several games a weekend at various locales before returning home late Sunday.
“You kind of have to look at it as being our chance to be together as a family,” said Kim, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at the David J. Lyon Washburn District Elementary School. “There are sacrifices you’re going to have to make, there are times when you feel like ‘here we go again’ when you’re setting off on your next trip.
“But we absolutely love watching our kids play no matter what they’re playing as long as their hearts are into it, and so far Mitch has absolutely loved his experience and so far Kenzie has, too, and we’ll continue to support them through that as far as they want to go with it.”
For the kids, the motivation for extending basketball season into the spring and summer initially was focused on self-improvement with an eye not only toward high school success, but also to gain the attention of college coaches who flock to many of the regional and national AAU events.
But the mere exposure to the basketball talent beyond the state’s borders has been enlightening, too, if not motivational.
“You go out of state and you see that those kids are good because they’re always playing against better people,” said Larry. “Our kids have gotten better from playing out of state, but it’s when you get back home you realize there’s a lot of people out there better than me and I better do something about that. That’s when you see them practicing more on their own and asking, ‘Can you take me to the gym?’ as opposed to when they’re just playing up here and aren’t exposed to that and thinking, ‘I’m pretty good, I don’t have to practice, I don’t have to get any better.’ That’s what I notice from going out of the area.”
What’s also become an almost equally important part of the travel basketball experience for the Worcesters has been the statewide network of friends they’ve made.
“When I started AAU it was definitely to get better and look at collegiate options, but I think the friendships that come from playing with the guys and being around them all the time are big, too,” said Mitch. “Those friendships grow until they become what they are now. When I’m in the Bangor area I’ll hang out with Cam Scott or Zach [Gilpin, both of Hampden Academy] or anybody else who’s played on the team. If I’m in Portland I’ll call Tanner [Hyland of South Portland]. We have great friendships now through basketball because we all like to do the same things.”
Friendships also develop among parents who share the same travel routines and are likely to spend as much time together at hotels or in gymnasiums around the Northeast each spring as they do with their best friends back home.
“It’s like with the high school teams when the parents are together, but that’s just 18 games and with this it’s 40 or 50 games and you’re staying overnight and you going to Florida and other places,” said Kim. “The kids become close and the parents do, too.”
Other lessons learned
While basketball is the primary area of development for the Worcester siblings through their commitment to the sport, other skills necessary to make that commitment work in conjunction with school and family life may have an even longer-term impact.
One such skill is time management, and making the most of the time available for studies.
“Sometimes I tried to do homework on the way down or on the way back, but I tried to get most of it done in study halls,” said Mitch. “You have to figure out when to do things and put one thing ahead of another, and obviously studies come first. It will help you later in life because you see what the priorities are and manage things that way.
“Over time it becomes a habit that you set time aside to do things, that you have a game plan for everything you do.”
And like with basketball, experience matters when it comes to finding time for other responsibilities.
“This year I seem to manage my time a little better,” said Mackenzie. “Freshman year I seemed to have a lot more homework, I probably didn’t utilize my study halls as well as I should have. This year I’m a little more focused and seem to get most of my work done during study halls.”
It’s one of the lessons their parents stress, that such preparation is valuable both on and off the court.
“A little forethought or planning ahead is important because they know come the weekend that there isn’t going to be time to get a project done so that planning helps them get that work done during the week,” said Kim. “Their classmates might have that extra time on the weekend, but these kids are traveling a lot so trying they need to budget their time to allow adequate time for school work.
“And as parents we’ve got to balance our lives so there’s the least amount of chaos as possible in the home, which isn’t always possible.”
In many respects, the Worcesters see basketball as a microcosm of life in the real world, and that the lessons gleaned from success or adversity on the court can be applied elsewhere.
“The whole aspect of working hard at something to improve your skills applies in life no matter what you venture off and try to do,” said Kim. “Teamwork is another essential in anything you do in the workplace, the friendships you build and the give and take you have every day.
“Mitch and I just last night talked about perseverance and determination, that there are going to be struggles along the way but you have to work hard to try to get better at what you’re passionate about. Those are all things that come from playing team sports.”
And it’s a path the Worcester family would take again, for all those reasons.
“I’d encourage kids to do it because of the hard work, determination and teamwork that comes from it,” said Mackenzie. “You also can develop leadership through it and learn how to communicate with your teammates so they don’t get upset when you say something to them.
“But really focus on school first and getting your homework done and then focus on the extras whether it’s sports or something else you enjoy doing.”