By Eric Carson
Keegan Hyland slashes down the lane, catches a high pass and softly kisses it off the glass for the first two points of South Portland’s 81-40 crush job over the Kennebunk Rams on Tuesday night at Beal Gymnasium.
Moments later he finds junior forward Matt Lee alone behind the three-point stripe and zips a no-look pass to him for 3, and then repeats the same act with Lee on the Red Riots’ next possession.
After another stop, Hyland inbounds the ball from the baseline and slips off a screen for a long 3 of his own from the corner. South Portland gets another stop and Hyland settles the offense at the top of the key, freezes his defender with a filthy crossover dribble, and rises for another 3-pointer with a lightning quick release.
The 6-foot-4 junior point guard adds another layup, feeds junior forward Spencer Bowring for a 3-pointer from the wing, before taking a short rest for Kennebunk to discuss things over a much-need timeout.
Finally, the Rams return to the floor and convert a 3 pointer of their own, but Hyland answers with his third 3-pointer and its 23-3 South Portland before the kernels had popped at concessions.
Hyland finished the quarter with 17 points, four assists and a pair of steals, as the Red Riots built a 29-11 advantage after one quarter of action. He would continue his assault immediately beginning the second quarter, finishing the first half with 30 points on his way to a 34-point night in which he would play only sparingly in the third quarter, and not at all in the fourth.
The only place in the gym he can’t score from is the bench.
Last season, Hyland became the first and only South Portland player to be named All-State as a sophomore, and returned this year even better and more focused. At the 13-game mark of his junior season, Hyland has already eclipsed his point total for all of last year, and his league-leading 29.8 points-per-game would easily qualify for tops in school history.
Incredibly, Hyland needs less than 100 points to reach 1,000 for his career, which would place him alongside Chris Markwood as the only two players to ever reach that plateau as Red Riots. Markwood, who played on scholarship in the Big East Conference for Notre Dame before transferring to the University of Maine, hit 1,000 on February 15 of his senior season in 2000, a full year behind Hyland.
As his stature grows, and word of his legendary work ethic spreads, the Hyland household is flooded with phone calls, the mailbox stuffed with letters. The coaches at the next level are quite aware of his game, and more than ready to offer a scholarship for his services.
Maine and Boston University were ready to sign the paperwork before this season ever started, and since that time the rest of the America East Conference, the Patriot League, and six teams from the Ivy League have thrown their hats in the ring. The staff at Princeton seemingly has Hyland on speed dial. High praise, but Hyland has goals, he always has.
“I love basketball,” said Hyland. “I always see the next level on television and that’s where I’m trying to get. My goal is to play major college basketball. And there are benefits like a free education. What’s better than to have fun doing what you love and going to school for free.”
If there is one glaring characteristic of Hyland it would be his unmatched drive to be the best. In the offseason he pops out of bed at the wee hour of 5 a.m., perhaps tripping over the morning paper on his way to meet Cheverus assistant coach Dan Costigan for the first of what could end up being four sessions in the gym. His goal, 700 makes each day, takes a significant amount of time to accomplish. He works on his handle, his jay, and adds 40 minutes of conditioning without a basketball to the mix. Hyland slips away during study hall to shoot some more, heads to the South Portland Rec Center after school for a few hours to hone his skills, then returns after dinner for another few hours of work. He’s getting bigger, stronger, and working on just his 17th year, there is no reason to think he won’t grow another few inches, add a few more pounds to his sturdy 190.
“Keegan is a great player that works extremely hard at the game,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “Because of his work ethic he’s only going to get better. He can shoot the ball. He can penetrate and score, and he’s a great passer. But the most important thing is that he’s a great team player. He wants us to win first.”
They don’t retire basketball numbers at South Portland High School. Save perhaps for two or three of the great ones, the rest have led their teams to state titles and those numbers, or years, are immortalized for eternity on the banner that proudly hangs for all to see.
As of now there are 10, tied for tops in Maine Class A basketball with Bangor, but the last one, 1992, sits ominously alone on its very own banner, waiting for at least one more to join and help ease its awkward solidarity.
It’s been waiting now for 16 years, the longest title drought in school history by more than double. It’s been 15 years since South Portland won a Western Maine Championship (1993), and 12 years since its last league title. For some perspective, the Southern Maine Activities Association formed in 1978, and in the 17 years until the Red Riots’ last league title in 1994, the program captured nine league championships. That’s 53 percent of the time if you’re scoring at home. Luckily for fans of Red Riots’ basketball, Hyland has had his eyes on that banner since he was at Mahoney Middle School, and is determined to help lead his team (which is now 12-1 and first in the Western A Heals) to another Gold Ball.
“My goal is to win the state championship,” said Hyland. “I think it’s ironic that the last time we won was the year I was born. It’s not like it used to be when South Portland was a powerhouse. The last couple of years we’ve always been the underdogs. But my teammates and I have been working each year to get better. I think we can win it this year if we play well, but most people don’t feel that way. Next year we’ll start the season as one of the teams to beat.”
Keegan Hyland has goals. He always has.