The Old Town boys basketball program has had its share of golden moments, with four state championships and six Eastern Maine titles dating back to the school’s 1929 regional crown.
The last two decades, however, have represented a postseason dry spell as the school’s declining enrollment led to its reclassification from Class A to Class B.
Not since 2001 had the team won a playoff game, and that was when as the 15th seed OId Town edged No. 10 Messalonskee of Oakland in a Class A preliminary-round contest during the Maine Principals’ Association’s two-year flirtation with an open tournament format.
Since then, the postseason appearances had been relatively rare and unfulfilling, with two prelim losses and a 2010 quarterfinal defeat preceding last year’s 75-33 prelim drubbing at Waterville.
But 12 months later, the Coyotes suddenly find themselves with a chance to win the school’s first state crown in the sport since 1991, when they face Poland for the gold ball at 8:45 p.m. Friday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“We’re so excited,” said senior guard Garvey Melmed, a four-year varsity player who was voted MVP of last week’s Eastern Maine Class B tournament. “Our goal at the beginning of the season was to get to the tourney and win a tourney game. Now we’re going to states. It’s pretty awesome.”
Old Town’s ascension to regional champion has involved a blend of talent, evolving team chemistry and growing momentum.
Melmed was one of several role players back from last year’s club, which finished the regular season ranked 10th in Eastern B with a 10-8 record.
The return of such veterans as Melmed and the frontcourt tandem of senior Zack Bartlett and junior Adam Richardson provided a foundation from which coach Brian McDormand could build, and the additions of several younger players as well as transfer students Eric Hoogterp and Nick Cowan gave the Coyotes a suddenly deep roster.
“In the beginning of the season, we knew we were going to be a good team,” said Melmed after the Eastern Maine tournament, “but it definitely took a while to get our team chemistry together, to bond together because we had a couple of kids coming from other schools.”
That developing chemistry was reflected in an up-and-down start, with Old Town just 3-3 through its first six games and hovering around 10th place in Eastern B after a 62-60 loss at Presque Isle on Jan. 18 left it at 8-5.
“At mid-January we started playing better together, guys were accepting each other and knew what we could do,” said McDormand, the veteran coach now in his fourth year at Old Town. “We needed to get on a streak and win some games because we had lost a lot of tough games. We needed to get over a tough first game at MDI, and once we we got past them, now we’re thinking we can beat teams because we split with a lot of the top teams this year.”
Old Town did benefit from a favorable late-season schedule, as its final five regular-season games and prelim contest all were at home leading to the Coyotes’ three successful tournament treks to the Cross Insurance Center.
“Going through those last five home games was definitely the turning point for us,” said Melmed. “We had a couple of good games before that, but winning those five at home definitely brought us together, and then we played well [in Bangor].”
The run has not been without adversity, as senior center Zach Bartlett suffered a hand injury after the quarterfinals and has been sidelined since then.
But Richardson, Cowan, senior Scott Smart and junior Mitchell Cole have picked up the frontcourt slack while Melmed, Hoogterp and Tyler Gifford have provided solid perimeter play.
Old Town (17-5) hopes to extend its winning streak one more game in its battle of No. 6 seeds against Poland, which at 14-8 is riding an eight-game winning streak of its own.
“We really started to jell three or four weeks ago,” said McDormand after the regional tournament. “Then we won five in a row to end the regular season, then a prelim game at home, so we had six in a row to help get us going, and now we’re here.”