BUCKSPORT, Maine — The high school basketball season, with its late-night games amid challenging weather conditions, can be a grind for players, coaches and fans alike.
Tournament time provides the most intense competition of all, leading many involved to welcome the chance to take a deep breath once state champions are crowned.
But the season doesn’t end with the gold-ball presentations.
The Maine McDonald’s all-star games at Husson University in Bangor cap off the careers of the top high school seniors, and undergraduate tournaments like the Great Harbor House Shoot-out on Mount Desert Island scheduled for this weekend foretell what the final Heal Points might look like next year.
One more postseason contest, the Penobscot Valley Conference Coaches vs. Cancer game, is rapidly establishing itself as another way for coaches, athletic directors and other administrators from around Eastern Maine. They are able to share one last experience on the court each winter and raise funds to assist basketball-minded people and families who are coping with the disease.
“It’s a tradition we want to do every year to help out, just to give back to the community,” said Mel Grant, girls varsity basketball coach at Searsport District High School. “We wanted to do it while basketball season was still fresh in everyone’s minds.”
This year’s Coaches vs. Cancer game will be played at 6 p.m. Thursday at Bucksport High School. Proceeds will benefit Amber Howard Stanhope, a former basketball star at Searsport and a kindergarten teacher in her hometown who is battling breast cancer.
Stanhope, who scored more than 1,500 points for the Vikings during the early 1990s, was diagnosed with the disease late last year and since then has undergone two surgeries, most recently last week.
The married mother of five has been active in her community over the years. She operated a daycare center, coached various youth sports teams and worked in the school’s pre-K program before taking her current job, and last winter she also coached in the local junior-high basketball program.
“She’s done everything for our community, she’s helped raise our kids,” said Grant. “She helped raise my kids, they went to daycare with her, and this is an opportunity for us to help her.”
More than 20 coaches and officials from schools around the region are expected to participate in the benefit game, which also will include a 50-50 raffle, a half-court shot contest and concession sales.
“The coaches have been great,” said Grant, who credited Piscataquis Community High School boys basketball coach Jamie Russell and Bucksport High athletic administrator Ed Hatch for their help in putting this year’s game together. “It’s a long way to travel for some of these coaches but they’ve been very gracious about taking part.
“We’re all competing against each other during the winter but we respect each other and we’re a close-knit bunch who will do anything for each other and our kids. It really makes us feel good to do this.”
The game is being held in neighboring Bucksport rather than Searsport because of the Bucksport gymnasium’s larger capacity.
This marks the third year of the PVC Coaches vs. Cancer game.
The inaugural game in 2015 was held at Penquis Valley High School in Milo to raise funds to benefit Zak Mills of LaGrange, the son of Penquis boys basketball coach Jason Mills, as the middle-school pupil successfully battled bone cancer.
Last year the scene switched to PCHS in Guilford, where the game benefitted the Aliza Jean Family Cancer Foundation. That foundation was created in the aftermath of the January 2013 death of 13-year-old Aliza Jean Stutzman of Harmony after her eight-month battle with brain cancer.
The eighth-grader was an avid basketball player and fan, and Aliza was on track to attend Dexter Regional High School and play basketball for the Tigers until her diagnosis.
The organization bearing Aliza’s name provides financial support for local families who have a child diagnosed with cancer, and it has a goal of spreading awareness about pediatric cancer and to advocate for advancements in research and treatment.
“I was at the PVC [basketball] preseason meeting this year and we had just found out that Amber had been diagnosed,” said Grant. “One of our chairs had asked who we could play the game for this year, and this really just fit. I spoke up and said we need to do this for Amber. She’s important to our community.”