By Michael Hoffer
FREEPORT — One season after playing in the regional final for the first time in 38 years, the Freeport boys’ basketball team faces an uphill climb to simply make the postseason.
Graduation, injuries and tough losses have conspired to leave the Falcons 2-10 with six games to go, but the team still has faith that it can make February magic.
“Making the tournament is still everyone’s goal,” said senior Jon Klages, a returning all-conference standout, and one of just two returners (along with Cody Bartlett) who saw ample playing time a year ago. “I don’t want my senior year to be the only year not to make it.”
The biggest news this season was coach and athletic director Craig Sickels’ recent announcement that this will be his final season leading the Falcons (Sickels plans to remain as athletic director).
“It’s been something that’s been on my mind,” Sickels said. “It would have been easy to go after last year.
“There are many factors. I have a special connection with Jon. He’s been a varsity player for four years. Very high caliber. I wanted to see him through. A new coach will want to make connections and get kids involved in the summer. I’m just not sure I have the energy to do that justice or that I want to. There’s so much time and planning. I just need a break. The last 25 years, my wife and I haven’t had a Thanksgiving, Christmas or February break because of basketball.
“I had a hard time getting it out at first. I told them at practice and I didn’t give them a chance to say anything and had them do a drill. The next day at school, I took time to meet with them and give them the whyfores. It’s a weight off. Now I can go coach. The kids haven’t really said much. We’re working to win games, so it isn’t really on their minds.”
Freeport, winners of 15 games last winter, lost to Gray-New Gloucester and Lake Region to begin this season. After a victory over Wells, the Falcons dropped decisions to Cape Elizabeth, York, Falmouth, Poland, Yarmouth, Greely and St. Dom’s.
The latter two losses, while painful, did provide optimism. The Falcons led the powerhouse Rangers at halftime and took the Saints to overtime before falling.
Last Tuesday, Freeport returned to the win column with a 57-47 home win over Fryeburg. The Falcons took an early lead and closed it out late behind 25 points from Bartlett and 16 from Klages. Junior Jackson Dodge added 11 points.
“Ever since the Greely game, we’ve played well,” Klages said. “It’s definitely humbling. We knew it would be tough after losing so much. Our younger guys are stepping up.”
“Last year’s turning point was the last game against Yarmouth,” Sickels added, alluding to a 25-point home loss that led to a resurgence for a tournament run. “I think the game against Greely was it this year. I think our first half got the guys to realize that we had to be deliberate to compete with the top teams.”
Freeport hoped to parlay that victory into a win streak, but the Falcons lost 51-49 at North Yarmouth Academy Thursday (on a buzzer-beater) to fall to 2-10.
“It’s such a turnaround emotionally from last year,” Sickels said. “I feel for Jon and Cody. It’s difficult mentally to go from the western Maine championship to 2-10. We practice hard every day. Hopefully, it’s not too little, too late. We’re just starting to understand how to play together. We’ve always been a pretty good defensive team. After the third game of the year, we decided we just couldn’t do what we did last year. We’re trying to be more patient.”
The Falcons still have home games remaining against York, Cape Elizabeth and Poland and trips to Greely, Gray-New Gloucester and Yarmouth on the slate. A couple upsets could spell a trip to Western B preliminary round.
“Fryeburg got in last year with six wins,” Sickels said. “I think there are six wins on our schedule. The rematches are going to be key.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com