While high school basketball’s expansion to five classes this winter has fostered increased competitive balance in many classes, there remain a smattering of dominant programs.
In the North region boys ranks, the short list begins with Hampden Academy, which remains undefeated as it pursues its third Class A state championship in four years and fifth consecutive regional title.
But just as dominant since the start of the 2015-16 regular-season schedule in early December is George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, the unbeaten leader of Class C North through its 11-0 start.
And it’s not much of a surprise. After dropping their first three games of the 2014-15 season, the Eagles won their next 15 games before bowing to Orono 68-57 in last February’s Eastern C quarterfinals.
Coach Dwayne Carter’s Eagles have beaten their opponents so far this season by an average of 22.8 points per game while limiting foes to just 42.7 points per contest through Monday night’s 59-33 win at Piscataquis of Guilford.
“It’s all defense,” said Carter. “We started out the year saying that’s the core, that’s the heart of our program, to play good man-to-man defense. So far we’ve done that pretty well.”
That defense, combined with the rebounding strength of a deep front line, has triggered a transition offense capable of game-changing runs. And when the pace of the game is slower, the inside strength of 6-foot-6 senior Nick Szwez and 6-4 sophomore Max Mattson and the perimeter play of sophomore Taylor Schildroth, junior Jarrod Chase and senior Will Entwisle presents a conundrum for opposing coaches.
“They just present so many problems for you,” said veteran Piscataquis coach Jamie Russell. We didn’t even entertain the idea of playing zone because of the way they can shoot and their high post-low post play. We just had to play them straight up.”
And while there is balance, there also is star power in the George Stevens lineup with Schildroth, already a second-year starter with a lightning-quick shot release and a smoothness about his overall game that suggests someone much older.
“He’s pretty special,” said Carter. “Taylor’s really a heady player, and he’s taken to heart trying to get everyone else involved because he knows there are going to be games when he’s going to have trouble because they’re going to put two guys on him but they can’t stop the rest of us.”
Chase provides another 3-point shooting touch, a touch often freed by the inside play of Szwez and Mattson.
“We’ve been preaching to them to establish the inside game first, and that would create the outside game because our outside guys can also go inside,” said Carter. “We try to take advantage of mismatches, and that balance makes it harder for people to play us. They have to cover the inside because we’re big and we can score, and if they go out, we go in, so it’s a good balance to have. It’s a balance that’s hard to defend.”
The Eagles’ rotation also includes senior Dakota Chipman, junior Beckett Slayton and sophomore Stefan Simmons.
“I think what really helps us is our depth,” Schildroth said. “Our bench guys come in and play well, and that gets us to run the floor a lot more because we all have fresher legs, and then when we need to slow it down in our halfcourt offense, we have multiple options to go to.”
George Stevens — which last won a state championship in 2003 — has been tested just once so far this season in a 52-47 victory over Class B North contender Ellsworth — with the next-closest win a 16-point decision over Calais.
“We got challenged by Ellsworth, and that was good,” said Carter. “We played really well that night. It was a good game, it was intense, and we’ve got to play more games like that.”
Bucksport could present a challenge to George Stevens’ 26-game regular-season winning streak Wednesday night, weather permitting, as while the Golden Bucks dropped a 62-41 decision to George Stevens in their earlier meeting, coach Larry Deans’ club is 11-2 after a win over Sumner of East Sullivan on Monday night.
Rematches with Ellsworth and Class C North rival Lee Academy also loom during the second half of the schedule.
“We’re hoping to go far in a tournament and win a state championship,” said Szwez. “Our expectation is just to take each game one at a time, take each team for what they are and not even try and look at our record but just know that we have to go out and work hard to try to win.”