AUGUSTA, Maine — As the clock ticked down the seconds Saturday morning at the Augusta Civic Center at the end of a western Maine Class D quarterfinal basketball game, it seemed like the population of an entire island held its breath.
And when the buzzer sounded, the 200 or so islanders in the stands let loose with screams and shouts of pure joy as the final score registered — North Haven 42, Greenville 36. They ran down the steps to swarm their boys, the ones who had just won a historic basketball victory that caused just about everyone on North Haven, year-round population 350, to swell with pride.
“Everybody is so proud of the whole group,” said Carol Waterman, mom of starting junior Avery Waterman. “Each person has this huge cheering squad. Not just their parents. It’s a huge thing. It was so fun to be in the middle of the crowd.”
It was the first time ever that any North Haven basketball team, boys or girls, had won a tournament game, and the islanders did not confine their celebration to the court in Augusta. That night, as the late boat chugged toward the ferry terminal in a snowstorm, with players and fans aboard, it suddenly slowed down. On shore, all three of the island’s firetrucks had their emergency lights and sirens going, car horns were blaring and at least 40 residents were there, shouting at the top of their lungs.
“We were confused. Then fireworks started going off. The town started shooting off fireworks,” said Ethan Mao, 18, a senior starting center for the Hawks. “The whole community was cheering for us. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.”
‘Over the moon’
High school basketball is important in lots of Maine communities, with a long season’s worth of wins and losses culminating in the week-long drama of February’s tourney time. But everything is a little different on an island — especially one that boasts the smallest high school in the state with just 17 students, nine of whom are boys. Only one of those boys doesn’t play basketball. There’s a girls’ basketball team, too, but they did not make it to the class D tournament this year.
Because the high school has fewer than 40 boys, the Maine Principals’ Association allows eighth graders to play on the varsity team, and two eighth grade boys round out the basketball team’s 10-man roster, which includes seniors Chayse MacDonald, Dalton Hornby, Ethan Mao and Zebadiah D. Campbell, juniors Aidan Emerson and Avery Waterman, sophomore Tristan Carrier, freshman Kaleb Campbell and eighth graders Grayson Demmons and Brandon Brown.
“Everyone knows each of the kids, often since they were born,” Hannah Pingree, school board member and former Maine Speaker of the House, said Monday. “You feel so proud of their accomplishments and their failures, almost as if they were your own kids. The town is over the moon about this first victory in Augusta.”
The three seniors and two juniors who make up the starting roster have known each other nearly all their lives and have been working together for this victory for three years now, according to Coach Roman Cooper.
“They made it happen,” he said with pride.
And they live in a tiny, close-knit community where people describe basketball as their ‘savior,’” he said.
“A lot of people have said it helps them get through the winter. Some people come to every game,” he said. “It’s a community thing. Win or lose, these kids are supported.”
But the Saturday morning win against third-ranked Greenville Consolidated School was special. And Cooper would know. His father was the island’s basketball coach for years and Cooper played for his dad on teams that played, and lost, in the first round of the state tournaments in 1984 and 1986.
“It was unreal,” he said of the weekend win for his sixth-ranked team. “It was like the weight of 60 years of basketball players and fans got thrown off your shoulders. We can breathe a little easier.”
Amy Marx, the school principal, said that it’s not so easy fielding a competitive basketball team when your players live more than 12 miles from the mainland. When the Hawks play other teams, they usually must stay overnight, sleeping in places ranging from motel rooms to gym floors. Often, they leave the island early on Friday, taking the hour-plus ferry ride to Rockland and then driving to far-flung communities to play that night and then again on Saturday morning. Some weekends, they drive three hours to Jackman, where they’ll bed down in vacation cottages that someone in the small Somerset County town has access to in the off-season. One year, the gas lines in the school bus froze in Jackman, meaning an even longer trip than the team had initially intended.
“We don’t have a lot of other stuff. Pretty much that’s our only winter sport,” Marx said of basketball. “It’s just one of those things. They lift the spirit of the island every single season, and when they go to the tournament, most of the island goes.”
She said that North Haven had more fans than anyone else in the Civic Center stands on Saturday.
“That’s the way we do it,” she said. “Everybody was hugging each other. Tears were flowing from the moms.”
One of those moms was Waterman, whose 16-year-old son, Avery, is a junior point guard who scored his 1,000th point at the end of January. She said that in order to make it to the Augusta Civic Center in time on Saturday morning, the island emptied out on Friday. It was so deserted, in fact, that she and other pet owners had to board their dogs on the mainland — something that they only have to do at tourney time, because there’s no one left to help out.
“The last person off the island turns the lights out,” she joked. “The ferries over are packed. Everybody was excited and hopeful. Everybody felt this year that it was their year, and they put in the hard work to do it.”
That work includes running the boys hard in practice — “exponentially” harder than they will during the games, Cooper said, in part because they don’t have enough players to field a lot of substitutes.
“In a game, I’ll be so thankful for all the running we do,” said Mao, the tallest player at 6 feet, 3 inches. “It pays off extremely well.”
He also in some ways is the newest member of the team, after moving here from the even smaller island community of Isle au Haut as a freshman in order to go to high school.
“The minute I set foot on this island I felt welcome,” he said. “I knew this was home. I hadn’t touched a basketball, or even knew what the game was when I came here. They taught me everything I know, the coach and the community.”
Right after the historic win, the boys started practicing for their next game: the western Maine class D semi-finals against the second-seeded Hyde Boarding School of Bath, to be played at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the Augusta Civic Center. It’s a bigger school, with 150 students, and has taller basketball players, but the North Haven team is confident. An historic victory will do that for a team.
“It’s going to be tough, but I know we can win,” Mao said. “Winning that would just be the icing on the cake. I’m really just extremely happy.”