Waynflete flies to first regional championship
A celebration decades in the making was unleashed upon the Augusta Civic Center floor Saturday evening.
The Waynflete boys' basketball team had longed to play in a state final, but had never been so fortunate.
The Flyers clinched a spot in the Class C state final with a superb performance and emphatic victory in the regional final against a talented squad from Maranacook, a team many felt was destined for a Gold Ball.
Instead, it will be Waynflete with that opportunity when it meets Houlton Saturday at 8:45 p.m., in Augusta.
The third-seeded Flyers put on a show against No. 5 Maranacook, never trailing and taking the lead for good on a putback from senior standout Serge Nyirikamba just 1 minute, 25 seconds into the game.
Nyirikamba had 11 points in the first period as Waynflete opened up a 19-13 lead. The Flyers' stymied the Black Bears in the second quarter and stretched their advantage to 35-22 by the break.
Nyirikamba nearly had a double-double in the first half (17 points, nine rebounds) and got plenty of help from senior Harry Baker-Connick and sophomore Milo Belleau, who both had nine points.
When Nyirikamba converted a three-point play with under a minute to go in the third period, Waynflete had an 18-point lead, 47-29, but Maranacook would rally and closed within 10, 48-38, on a 3 from junior Cameron Brochu with 6:51 remaining.
The Flyers didn't let the Black Bears score again, however, and closed the game on a 14-0 run to put the finishing touches on a most impressive 62-38 triumph.
Nyirikamba led the way with 22 points and 16 rebounds, Baker-Connick added 17 points, Belleau had 11 and senior reserve Joey Schnier 10 as Waynflete improved to 18-2 with its 10th straight victory and ended Maranacook's campaign at 16-6.
"I'd say it's pretty gratifying," said Flyers senior captain Henry Cleaves. "I remember three years ago, winning our very first game in Augusta and it was a big deal. I was sitting on the bench pretty happy. We came into this tournament with the goal of winning it and not only did we win it, but we dominated every game."
Waynflete has been competing under the auspices of the Maine Principals' Association since 1975, but only twice before had the Flyers even made it to a regional final, losing to Oak Grove-Coburn in 1983 and to Boothbay last winter.
This season, Waynflete knew it had the pieces in place to do something special and its 15-2 regular season hinted at February glory. The Flyers' only losses came to Western B contenders Lake Region and Yarmouth and Waynflete managed to win at Western B champion Poland, 63-57, Jan. 17. The Flyers also handled Western D runner-up Hyde, 70-47, Feb. 7 at home.
Waynflete earned the No. 3 seed for the playoffs and after ousting No. 6 Monmouth (66-51), the Flyers got some good fortune as instead of having to face the second-ranked Seahawks in a rematch of last year's regional final (largely because Boothbay suspended several players on the eve of the tournament for violating school code), the Flyers got No. 10 Hall-Dale instead and rolled in the semifinals, 55-35, and instead of facing top-ranked Dirigo and its dazzling tournament pedigree in the regional final, it got Maranacook instead.
The Black Bears went 13-5 in the regular season and upset No. 4 Winthrop (68-52) and Dirigo (87-71) to advance.
Prior to Saturday, Maranacook and the Flyers had never met in a countable game.
Waynflete quickly made a statement and seized control of the contest.
Just 19 seconds in, Nyirikamba set up Belleau for a 3 and the Flyers were off and running.
After Maranacook tied the game on a 3 from senior Taylor Wilbur, Nyirikamba's putback put Waynflete ahead for good and Baker-Connick added a pair of foul shots.
The Black Bears got an old-fashioned three-point play from sophomore Kent Mohlar (bank shot, foul and free throw), but Nyirikamba answered with one of his own.
Maranacook again drew within a point as Wilbur was fouled while shooting a 3 and hit all three free throw attempts, but Baker-Connick made a free throw, Nyirikamba scored on a putback, Belleau hit a jumper and after blocking a shot at one end, Nyirikamba soared in for a layup, was fouled and completed the dazzling three-point play to stretch the lead to 18-9.
"A good start was crucial," Belleau said. "We had a slower start against Hall-Dale. We knew if we got off to a good start, we'd get a good lead and get the tempo our way and control the game. We did a good job of that."
A pair of foul shots from Brochu ended the 8-0 Waynflete run, but Nyirikamba made a free throw. In the final minute of the first quarter, senior Brad Worster knocked down two foul shots and the Black Bears trailed, 19-13, entering the second period.
There, the Flyers started to get some separation.
After Maranacook drew within four on a layup from Mohlar, Nyirikamba scored on a putback, Baker-Connick made a free throw and Baker-Connick took a pass from Schnier and knocked down a 3 to make it a 10-point game, 25-15.
The Black Bears got a 3 from senior Richard Hall, but Baker-Connick set up Belleau for a nice reverse layup and Nyirikamba drove for a layup and a 29-18 advantage.
Worster answered with a bank shot, but Belleau hit a baseline jumper and Baker-Connick drove for a layup and a 33-20 lead.
In the final minute, Maranacook senior Caleb Jackson made a pullup jumper, but a highlight reel reverse layup from Nyirikamba as time wound down put Waynflete firmly in control at the break, 35-22.
In the first 16 minutes, Nyirikamba had 17 points and nine boards.
The Flyers never truly allowed the Black Bears to make things interesting in the second half.
At the start of the third quarter, Baker-Connick picked up where he left off in the first half, setting up Nyirikamba for a layup. Baker-Connick added a jumper and it was 39-22.
A pair of Wilbur free throws with 3:43 left in the third snapped a 4 minute, 42 second Black Bears' scoring drought, but Schnier didn't allow Maranacook to any confidence, burying a 3.
After Wilbur went coast to coast for a layup with 1:44 remaining in the stanza, for the Black Bears' first field goal of the second half, Baker-Connick answered with a layup of his own.
Wilbur drained a long 3, but Nyirikamba converted a three-point play with 40.2 seconds to go and Waynflete had a 47-29 lead.
Wilbur made a leaner and after Flyers junior Pace Hutchinson hit a foul shot, sophomore Jason Brooks made two for Maranacook and Waynflete took a 48-33 lead to the fourth period.
Early in the fourth, the Black Bears got a layup from Mohlar and a 3 from Brochu, but those three points would be the last Maranacook would score this season.
The Flyers went cold for several minutes and the Black Bears could have crept closer, but sophomore Christopher Beckwith missed two free throws and Wilbur and Hall were both off target on the front end of one-and-ones.
Finally, with 4:10 to play, a 3 from Schnier ended Waynflete's 4:24 drought and made the score 51-38.
"We hadn't scored in a little bit and we were going away from the approach of being aggressive and taking open shots," Schnier said. "We were trying to waste some clock too. That shot definitely helped give momentum back to us."
From there, the Flyers hit their free throws and closed it out.
Belleau hit two with 3:24 to play. Sophomore Abel Alemayo added another with 2:35 to play.
Ten seconds later, after an Alemayo steal, Baker-Connick drove for a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw for the three point play.
With 2:02 left, Baker-Connick made another foul shot and the lead was 20.
Down the stretch, Schnier hit two free throws and made a layup after a steal and Waynflete ran out the clock from there before celebrating its 62-38 victory.
"We knew a lot about (Maranacook)," Baker-Connick said. "We watched them play after our semifinal. We knew what we could do. I knew if we played our game, we'd have success. Coach gave us a good game plan. Last year helped. We got used to playing on the big floor, in front of a big crowd, in a big stadium."
"It's surreal, but at the same time, I expected to be here," Nyirikamba said. "I felt like we're still the same team from last year and a few guys stepped up."
"It's a testament to the program and what (coach) Rich (Henry) and (athletic director) Ross (Burdick) have done, from 'Little Flyers' to varsity," Cleaves said.
"I thought the team was very focused on the game plan we'd discussed," Henry added. "It's also important that we'd reached the same point last year and experienced playing in a championship game and falling short. It seems as though this group of players moved past the hurdles they faced the year before, getting past a quarterfinal, past a semifinal, etc. Maranacook's a very athletic team and has a great program, so we really appreciate being able to move on.
"Having the opportunity to play in a state championship game is something any team would cherish and we certainly understand and appreciate the magnitude. I'm really happy for each member of the team. For the seniors, it's a great way to conclude their high school career and for the underclassmen, it represents a standard they can shoot for going forward. They can learn from this experience, see what level of commitment it takes to even have a chance at advancing this far. There are so many things that go into a successful season...hard work, luck, things that you have some amount of control over and things you don't."
Nyirikamba had 22 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots to lead all players.
"I had a good matchup," Nyirikamba said. "They had a sophomore on me."
Nyirikamba, a semifinalist for the Mr. Maine Basketball award, had another stellar performance and was named the winner of the C. Harry Edwards Award, as the regional tournament's outstanding player/sportsman.
"It was really exciting, but it's all thanks to my teammates," Nyirikamba said.
Those teammates know how special a player Nyirikamba has become.
"He's finally getting the recognition he deserves," Cleaves said. "Ask anybody who's been around Waynflete the past four years, we knew how dominant he is. It's unheard of for someone wearing a Waynflete jersey to average 24 points and be that dominant in Augusta. He's proving to everyone how capable he is."
Baker-Connick finished with 17 points, five rebounds and a steal.
Belleau had 11 points, three boards, a steal and a block.
"I didn't play much freshman year, so I was nervous the first game (in Augusta), but I got used to it and had fun," said Belleau, whose older brother, Max, was part of last year's run. "Everybody had to fill different roles. I knew I had to bring a scoring threat."
Schnier brought great energy off the bench and had 10 points, two rebounds and two steals.
"(My role) varies game to game," Schnier said. "It depends who I come for. It's about giving our team more depth. If I can rebound or play good defense, that's what I have to do."
Hutchinson added one point and six rebounds and Alemayo also had a point, to go with three steals, two rebounds and a block.
Waynflete finished with a 39-27 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 15 times and made 16 of 24 foul shots.
For Maranacook, Wilbur had a team-high 15 points, six boards and four blocked shots.
Mohlar had seven points, Brochu five, Worster four, Hall three and Brooks and Jackson two apiece.
The Black Bears shot 12 of 18 on free throws and committed 15 turnovers.
The last team standing between Waynflete and the program's first Gold Ball is Houlton, which went 18-0 in the regular season and as the top seed, handled No. 9 Bucksport (51-35), No. 5 Penquis Valley, the defending state champion (60-44), and finally No. 3 Lee Academy (49-31) in its run to a regional title.
The Shiretowners last won a state title a decade ago, when they defeated Jay, 64-49. Houlton also lost the 1930 Class A Final to Cheverus.
The Flyers have never faced Houlton, not on the hardwood anyway, but back in November, 2011, as sophomores, Cleaves and Schnier played and Baker-Connick was on the sidelines when Waynflete beat Houlton in overtime of the Class C boys' soccer state game.
"It will definitely be intense," said Schnier. "The (soccer state game) was intense. I'm excited to be back in that setting. It's special. Most kids don't get to experience that, let alone twice."
Waynflete will be in uncharted waters Saturday night, but it's definitely up for the challenge.
"We have to give our all," said Cleaves. "We have to take the approach that this will be our last game. We can look back on the season as the best season Waynflete's ever had, or a disappointing end to a good season. All the seniors know that this is it. We have to put everything we have into practice all week and give all we've got for all four quarters."
"Intensity is the key," Nyirikamba said. "The team with more intensity will win the game. We need to stop them on defense. We'll watch some tape and learn more about them."
"Playing in Augusta is an advantage to us," Belleau said. "We'll come out with a good start."
"I think it's going to be fun," Baker-Connick said. "It's good to know we have one last game. We'll bring everything we have and do our best. We have to play our pace, play strong defensively. If we have defensive intensity and come out with a hot start, I like our chances."
"At this point, my feeling is that the characteristics of the team and players are fully formed," Henry added. "If you're a fastbreaking team, that's what you're going to do in the final, or conversely, if you're a halfcourt team, that's what you'll be. We'll talk in practice about adjustments based on how we want to play Houlton. They're a very talented team, they've had a great season and they have a dominant player (Kyle Bouchard), which is what you'd expect from a team that is undefeated. We'll have our work cut out, that's for sure."