October 17, 2018
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High school basketball gives Maine players game to cherish, chance to improve

High school basketball in Maine has changed markedly since Lauren Webster helped lead the Boothbay Region High School to the 1984 Class C state championship.

The 3-point arc was soon to be introduced, followed by the introduction of AAU and other offseason travel basketball programs during the 1990s.

Add in the growth in the number of media outlets covering this rite of winter — and the explosion of public yet often anonymous critique of the sport through social media — and the fates of teenage players around Maine have become one of the more heavily scrutinized activities of the high school experience.

Much of that critique is negative and recently has centered on the reduced scoring in games, this season in particular.

The vast majority of those debates are conducted by adults, but what do today’s players think?

Conversations with five of the six finalists for 2018 Mr. and Miss Maine Basketball offer an understanding of the issues facing Maine high school basketball, at least one change that might be beneficial and other areas where the game has stood the test of time.

“When I was a little kid I always dreamed of playing for the Seahawks. My mom actually was a senior captain on the 1984 gold ball team, the only gold ball team Boothbay has had for girls basketball,” said Boothbay senior center Page Brown, the daughter of Lauren Webster.

“It’s always been fun to be able to aspire to the goals and success like she had. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a lot of success, and that’s been super fun along with the kids I’ve played with since probably the second grade.”

The scoring dilemma

While the 3-point shot was implemented beginning with the 1987-1988 season to enhance scoring by encouraging longer-range shooting in order to create more space nearer the basket, offense has gradually diminished over the years.

Take this year’s 10 state championship games, where the boys and girls winners averaged 50.8 points per victory compared to 42.4 points for the runners-up.

In the 20 North and South regional finals, only three winners scored as many as 60 points and only half of the winners scored 50 points or more. Four other teams that advanced to title games scored 30 points or less in defeat, with a low of 21.

Demographics play a role as nearly all public high schools are experiencing decreasing enrollment and a shrinking talent pool. And most schools are expanding their sports offerings to accommodate student desires.

Changes within the game, including an emphasis on defense, offensive patience and a propensity for shooting 3-pointers, also have affected scoring.

“I think the defense is getting better without a doubt,” said Hampden Academy senior Ian McIntyre, who will play at Husson University in Bangor next winter. “Also, teams are starting to play slower. A lot of teams want to run through their offense and don’t want to play as fast paced, so they’ll take the ball and pass it around for a few seconds looking for the shot they want and if they don’t get the look they want they’ll work it around again.

“Teams are shooting the 3 a little more often, too, and that has a little lower chance than a layup or a midrange jumper so maybe the field-goal percentage is going down as well,” he added.

The distance of 3-point attempts also has increased, a trend that could be named the “Stephen Curry effect.” The Golden State Warriors guard’s extreme range has caught on with the younger set.

“I think one way the game has changed so much is that people’s range is unbelievable,” said high-scoring guard Taylor Schildroth of three-time reigning Class C state champion George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill. “You could move the 3-point line back but I don’t know how much that would affect things because at this point almost everyone shoots from out there.

“(Curry’s) changed it in such a way that instead of wanting to dunk kids want to shoot from 35 feet, so everyone’s range has backed up a lot.”

Mr. and Miss Maine Basketball finalists agree that while taking longer 3-pointers may result in a lower shooting percentage, the potential for them to go in can add to the excitement of the moment.

“I don’t think it’s really anything where you look down and check your feet to see where you are,” said Kolleen Bouchard, the 2018 Miss Maine Basketball from Houlton High School who will continue her playing career on scholarship at Bentley University in Massachusetts. “If you’re open you shoot it.”

Emily Wheaton, a Miss Maine Basketball finalist from Presque Isle who will play at Husson University next year, had an additional suggestion.

“Maybe a 4-point line,” she said. “I’d be down with that.”

Time for a shot clock?

One suggestion that received wide support for speeding up the high school game is the institution of a shot clock.

While a staple of the professional and collegiate ranks, only eight states — including Massachusetts and Rhode Island — employ either a 35- or 30-second shot clock at the high school level.

The additional cost of paying someone to operate the shot clock during games and the debate as to whether the clock is a true solution to the scoring drought — or would simply prompt teams to take less-developed shots earlier in each possession — have been among the deterrents to widespread use of the device.

Maine players, all of whom scored at least 1,000 points during their careers, see the shot clock as providing a boost in at least the pace of the game.

“I think it’s something Maine is going to get in time,” said McIntyre. “Thirty-five seconds is plenty of time to get a shot off.

“I think the shot clock would not necessarily move up the score into the 70s and 80s but would push them up from the 30s and low 40s into the 50s,” he added.

Bouchard, who scored more than 2,000 points, is one of the few Maine high school players who has some shot-clock experience.

“We play over in Canada sometimes with a shot clock and it changes the pace of the game,” said Bouchard. “Games would definitely be more interesting and probably more competitive because you couldn’t just go out and sit on the ball, you’d have to continue to play and look to score and not stall.

“Teams don’t care how they win and whether it’s ugly or not, they just want to win.”

College-bound players see a high school shot clock as good preparation for the next stage of their careers.

“It could be cool for high school players to have the chance to learn how to play with a shot clock but it also would change the game of basketball a lot in Maine,” said Brown, who is headed to Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

“I know when we play AAU teams from states that have shot clocks, they just play a different game and sometimes it’s difficult to adjust to it.”

High school vs. AAU

High school players say they encounter more fast-paced action during their travel seasons and benefit from competing on regional or statewide all-star teams in numerous tournaments against out-of-state opposition.

“When you’re playing out of state in AAU you’re playing against players who frankly are better than the competition you see in an average high school game, and then when you come back in state you find yourself scoring more easily and playing defensively more easily in high school,” said McIntyre.

AAU tournaments also provide more exposure to college recruiters.

“You play against kids who have multiple Division I offers, kids you would not see in high school games,” said Brown. “In AAU you’re also playing to get scouted and noticed in addition to skill development, so there’s a different dynamic there, too.”

The chance to work out with their Maine peers during travel-team practices also can yield multiple benefits.

“The best thing I like about basketball is that it can help you with any aspect of life,” said Wheaton. “I met my best friend (Sydney Allen of Central of Corinth) through basketball. I met her through AAU, and it’s just cool to see all these new people and places.”

Yet all the benefits of offseason basketball can’t take anything away from perhaps the most unique quality of the high school season.

“The culture of Maine high school basketball is just fantastic,” Brown said. “The press you get, the people who talk to you, and Boothbay in particular is a really big basketball town where you see all the balloons and the signs that say ‘Go Seahawks” everywhere.

“Just being able to play for your hometown is pretty cool.”

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