When his Van Buren boys basketball team lost its season opener by 46 points on its home court on Dec. 6, head coach Steve Lapierre had a most logical reaction.
“I was thinking there was nowhere to go but up,” he said.
And that’s why Lapierre has been leading soccer and basketball in the St. John Valley for some four decades — a lack of panic.
Not only have his Crusaders moved up the Heal Point rankings since that 77-31 loss to Class C North top seed Central Aroostook, they have won 15 of their last 16 games heading into Wednesday night’s regular-season finale in Mars Hill against those same Panthers.
At 15-2, Van Buren already is guaranteed its most successful regular season since finishing 17-1 in 2003, and a chance to watch the Crusaders in action has been the hottest ticket in town this winter.
“The fans and the community have been really supportive,” Lapierre said.
Van Buren’s improvement this winter comes as no surprise after returning most of its varsity roster from last year’s eighth-seeded squad that went 9-9 in Class D North and fell to top-seeded Woodland in the regional quarterfinals.
The Crusaders have benefitted from the addition of 5-foot-4 junior Isaiah Morales, a transfer from Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“He’s a point guard, and probably that was the weakest spot we had,” Lapierre said. “He’s quick, a good ballhander and he passes it well. He just does a lot of things that we were missing.”
Morales is among a group of players contributing to a balanced offense that typically places four scorers in double figures from game to game.
The lone senior starter, 6-2 forward Luc Perreault, provides much of the team’s inside presence, with 6-footers Casey Bellamy, a sophomore, and junior Emmanuel Deschaine along with 5-6 sophomore Blake Martin, 5-7 freshman Henry Hebert and 5-2 eighth-grader Samuel Hebert also in the rotation.
“They get along really well. They look for each other well. If a player has a better shot, the other kids look to give it up,” Lapierre said. “I think team chemistry is our strength. They all take their turns. Everyone’s contributing in one way or another.”
Van Buren did suffer a significant loss two weeks ago when 6-3 junior Colby Lavoie suffered a Grade III ankle sprain. He has not played since then, and his availability for the Crusaders’ tourney debut — expected to come on Feb. 17 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor — is uncertain.
“It doesn’t look like it right now, he’s still wearing a walking boot,” Lapierre said. “He’s getting some therapy and he’s got a couple of weeks, so we’ll have to wait and see.”
Van Buren has yet to lose in Lavoie’s absence, though Wednesday’s rematch at 13-4 Central Aroostook will be a major pre-tournament test for the Crusaders.
“Gradually we’re improving,” Lapierre said. “One of our problems in the last five, six or seven games is we’ve been getting down early in the games. We’ve been down eight or 10 points and have had to fight back to get into it, so we’ve been working to play on a more even keel.
“I think the kids are coming around. It’s basically taking the ball and getting into the flow of the game and not being too nervous. I’ve still got some young kids out there, so that’s what we continue to work on.”
Van Buren will have nearly two weeks between the end of the regular season and its tournament opener. Lapierre hopes to schedule at least two scrimmages to help his team stay sharp.
But the ticket to the tournament already has been punched, and the third-ranked Crusaders hope a deep run begins with the program’s first victory at the Cross Center since a 2014 trip to the semifinals.
“We think we work as hard as anyone else and deserve to be out there,” Lapierre said. “We’re just going to go out, try to play our game and not be intimidated.”