Kyle Bouchard already was familiar with the challenges inherent in competing in an AAU national basketball tournament.
They include travel and time away from home, the rigorous game schedule — sometimes numbering multiple contests per day — and the injuries that accumulate during a steady stretch of competition.
The Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team forward from Houlton High School endured his share of injuries a year ago when Bouchard and the Maine Athletic Club 17-and-under boys basketball team compiled a 10-4 record in national competition and advanced to the consolation semifinals of the AAU Division 11th-Grade National Championships.
This year, Bouchard was his team’s elder statesman, back for a third season of playing with coach Carl Parker’s U17 collection of many of the state’s top high school players.
Despite having an entirely new roster, Bouchard and the team achieved perhaps even greater success at the nationals held recently in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Maine squad reached the semifinals of the 32nd annual Eddie Ford Kentucky Hoopfest, a final preparatory event. Then MAC rebounded from a first-game loss in the AAU nationals championship play-down with four straight victories to earn an 11th-place finish among 99 teams from around the country.
That matched the best-ever finish by a Maine team at the high-profile AAU Division I 11th-Grade Nationals. An MBR U17 team also coached by Parker finished 11th in 2007.
“Right from the start we could tell that we had a good group of guys and really a lot of talent and a chance to do something special,” said Bouchard, a 6-foot-4-inch senior. “We took our hits in the first few tournaments this year as we saw ourselves getting to know each other. We played well in bits and pieces early on but really started to play well together in July, right when we needed to.”
Bouchard was joined on the nine-player MAC roster by fellow Aroostook County standouts Dayne Savage of Caribou and Chris Hudson of Hodgdon, Nick Mayo of Messalonskee of Oakland, Matt Murray of Cony of Augusta, Nason Lanphier and Justin Martin of Winslow, Ben Malloy of Bonny Eagle of Standish and Jack Simonds of Falmouth.
“There was no intimidation whatsoever,” said Bouchard of a schedule that included opponents from many of the nation’s major cities. “When we were shooting well and playing well, we thought we could play with anybody in the country, to be honest.”
The team finished with an overall record of 10-3 in Kentucky, including 6-2 in the national tournament.
“We had played in so many high-level tournaments during the year with coach Parker that we knew we could compete with anybody we played,” said Savage, a guard who will be a senior at Caribou High School this fall.
There was an initial adjustment required by many of the players upon joining the team this spring, from being a dominant player in their high school programs to fitting a more specific role on the AAU squad.
“I had always been so used to being the best player on the team and the guy who had to take the last shot. I had never played on a team like this,” said Savage. “But all of us took on our roles and understood that if we really wanted to make a name for ourselves and make people aware of us outside of Maine that we’d all have to come together as a team and show that we could compete with those teams.”
The nationals not only provide an opportunity for teams from different parts of the country to test themselves against top squads from other regions, it also serves as an audition of sorts for individual players in front of many of the leading college coaches in NCAA Division I as well as other divisions.
Bouchard was familiar with that part of the process, having already drawn considerable attention during his previous trips to the nationals.
This year’s breakthrough player was the 16-year-old Mayo, a 6-7 forward who earned All-Maine honorable mention and first-team All-Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference recognition last winter after averaging 14.7 points and 13.4 rebounds at Messalonskee.
“I’ve seen maturation throughout the AAU season with him,” said Bouchard. “He’s just 16, but he just thrived when he was playing here.”
Mayo dropped off the Messalonskee baseball team this spring to focus on basketball, and that seemingly paid off as he reportedly received several Division I scholarship offers while in Kentucky.
“I think it was a good thing to do because it’s given me a lot of opportunities,” said Mayo, a resident of Belgrade. “Early on it was a surprise. But as the season kept on going and after I got one [scholarship offer], my confidence built up, and I knew if I could keep playing at the level I knew I could play at, then more might come.”
Mayo led the MAC team in scoring and rebounding during national tournament play.
Such individual progress within the team concept during the AAU campaign wasn’t confined to Mayo.
“When I first joined the team I really struggled,” said Savage. “It was more of a wake-up call, and it wasn’t because I couldn’t do it, but I just hadn’t experienced it. By the end of the year, I felt like I could bring the ball up against anybody and play with anybody, and it was all because of the guys I was playing with and being exposed to that competition.
“You really learn a lot about yourself and what you can do.”