The schedule is unique and the travel considerable, but little is stopping the boys basketball team at Islesboro Central School this winter.
The Eagles are off to their best start in a decade, boasting a 10-1 record good for second place in Western Maine Class D after a 62-40 victory over visiting Forest Hills of Jackman on Tuesday afternoon that avenged the Eagles’ only loss this season.
“Last year they didn’t make the playoffs, so at first we set our goals pretty low,” said first-year Islesboro coach Andrew Leach, a 2001 graduate of the school. “We just wanted to play better game by game and hopefully make the playoffs, but then we got off to a hot start. When we went to Forest Hills (Dec. 18), even though we lost, it was a five-point game and it really energized us because we knew Forest Hills was a strong team that would be going to the tournament and now we knew we could play with them.
“Now we’d like to take a real run at winning the West and having a shot at that state final in Bangor on March 5.”
If the island team is to reach its revised postseason goals, it will have required a most circuitous route.
When Leach arrived back at his alma mater this fall as its athletic administrator, coach and physical education teacher, only a few games were confirmed for the Eagles’ boys basketball schedule.
Islesboro is not affiliated with a conference, meaning it must go in various different directions to fill an 18-game slate.
What Leach ultimately pieced together was a schedule that includes 12 different opponents and just seven home games. Two games against neighboring island rival North Haven and one against Vinalhaven represent the shortest road — or sea — trips, while the Eagles’ travel itinerary also includes visits to Jackman, Greenville, Bingham (Valley), Rangeley, Orrington (Calvary Chapel), Bath (Hyde School), Freeport (Pine Tree Academy), Portland (A.R. Gould and Greater Portland Christian School) and South Berwick (Seacoast Christian).
“I had to be pretty creative about it, because it’s tough not being in the Class D East-West Conference,” said Leach. “We wanted to make sure we had some tournament-type teams on the schedule, teams like Forest Hills and Rangeley, and we were finally able to put together our schedule.”
Leach was concerned about his team’s strength of schedule because of what happened during his own four years playing center at Islesboro from 1998 through 2001. The Eagles went a combined 60-10 in regular-season play during that span, but won just one postseason game, a 1999 quarterfinal before bowing to North Yarmouth Academy in the semifinals.
As a senior in 2001, Leach and Islesboro finished the season with a 16-0 record good for second place in Western D, but lost to No. 7 Buckfield in the quarterfinals.
“Because of our schedule, we weren’t ready for the tournament back then,” he said.
Another issue a decade ago was that the school’s basketball court was smaller than regulation size, Leach said, and it was difficult for the Eagles to adjust to the spacious Augusta Civic Center where the Western D tournament is played.
That’s not an issue any longer, as thanks to a recently completed $8 million renovation funded by a local bond issue and private donations, the school has an upgraded athletic facility that includes a full-sized court.
And that court fits perfectly with Islesboro’s style of play, which emphasizes fast-break offense and pressing defense.
The Eagles are led by two 1,000-point scorers in 6-4 senior center Jason Hatch and 6-3 junior point guard D.J. Johnson, both who have been playing on the varsity since the eighth grade given Islesboro’s limited number of students — 37 for grades 9-12.
Hatch, who scored his 1,000th a year ago, is the Eagles’ primary inside threat, while Johnson — who scored his 1,000th on Monday in a home-court win over Seacoast Christian — is considered one of the better guards in the region.
“I think he’s one of the better players not just in Class D but in the state,” said Leach. “When he plays AAU basketball he has many more assists than he has with us, but we need him to be more of a scorer. He’s very versatile, and he’s a very smart player. He knows the situations before I call out the plays.”
Seniors Max Mahan and Gerard Scherr add considerable experience to the nine-player team, which plays its next game at seventh-ranked Rangeley on Saturday.
Just one more road trip on the road to Augusta.
“Our guys are used to traveling,” said Leach. “On trips like this or to Jackman, we’ll leave at 7:30 a.m. on the first ferry off the island, and by the time we get back home its 8:30 or 9 o’clock (at night). But the kids are used to it, it’s like a family sort of thing because when we have the boys’ and girls’ teams traveling to the same place, it’s most of the kids in the school.
“It’s a lot of fun for them, they like playing on the road.”