A hoops season like no other
The city of Portland produced two basketball state champions and very nearly had a third.
That, in and of itself, would be enough to decree the 2013-14 campaign as the best in memory, but there was much, much more than just Gold Balls this winter.
So much more.
From thrilling games to scintillating performances, city hoops fans were the ultimate winners as Cheverus, Deering, McAuley, Portland and Waynflete all produced memories that will linger for a long, long time.
The tone was set on Opening Night, when the three-time defending Class A state champion McAuley girls got a scare from visiting Thornton Academy, but they went on to win their 49th straight contest. The Lions would ultimately prove vulnerable, losing a rematch to the Golden Trojans in Saco Jan. 7, their first setback in 57 contests, but they would right the ship and roar into the playoffs at 17-1.
Not far behind McAuley was Portland, once the region's gold standard. The Bulldogs, after missing the playoffs in seven of eight seasons, shot to an 11-1 start before winding up 13-5 and earning the No. 4 seed.
Cheverus was competitive as always and although the Stags stumbled late in the regular season, their 12-6 mark gave them the No. 6 seed and despite their ranking, they became a fashionable pick to make a deep playoff run.
Deering almost completely turned over its roster, but got stronger as the season developed and a regular season-ending upset win over Portland allowed the Rams to not just make the playoffs at 8-10, but host a preliminary round game.
In Western C, Waynflete, the defending state champion, had an enormous void to fill after 2013 Miss Maine Basketball winner, Martha Veroneau, graduated, but the Flyers remained competitive and closed the regular season strong at 12-6.
On the boys' side, Portland entered as a favorite in Western A and didn't disappoint, crushing virtually every foe en route to an 18-0 regular season, allowing the Bulldogs to go into the playoffs as the top seed.
Deering, under new coach Todd Wing, played the season with a heavy heart after beloved freshman coach, Brendan Conway, died suddenly at the far-too-young-age of 34 while playing in a pickup game in November. The Rams were able to come together and honor Conway's memory with a strong 12-6 campaign, good for the No. 4 seed in Western A.
Cheverus, a year after missing the playoffs for the first time this century, returned to form and although the Stags were up-and-down, they wound up seventh in the region at 9-9.
In Western C, Waynflete, a year after its first regional final appearance in three decades, hinted at an even more special season, when it ran roughshod over virtually everyone, posting a 15-2 record that was blemished only by losses to Class B contenders Lake Region and Yarmouth. The Flyers went into the playoffs the third-ranked team in the field.
Then, the fun truly began.
The girls' postseason opened with Cheverus dominating Bonny Eagle in one prelim, Deering dispatching Scarborough in another and Waynflete earning another trip to Augusta by beating back an upset bid from Sacopee Valley.
On the boys' side, Cheverus kept its season alive with a preliminary round win over Scarborough.
The minute the curtain rose for the quarterfinals at the Expo, it became clear that the tournament would be one for the ages.
In the very first game, Deering had to scratch and claw just to survive No. 12 Marshwood in overtime. Portland then took the floor and had no trouble with No. 8 Noble.
After being postponed two days by bad weather (could it have been any other way this winter?) Cheverus took the floor and gave No. 2 Falmouth a scare before losing a close game.
Up in Augusta, Waynflete was a 15-point winner over Monmouth in its quarterfinal.
On the girls' side, Waynflete's run as champion came to an end with a close loss to eventual regional champion Carrabec in the quarterfinals.
In Western A, Cheverus, in an upset by seeds, dominated South Portland, while Portland won its first quarterfinal round game in a decade, holding off Gorham. McAuley then made quick work of Deering to advance.
When the action moved over the newly renovated Cumberland County Civic Center for the semifinals, there was drama before the ball was ever tipped (when it was discovered at the last moment that there was no high school 3-point line) and continued when the whistle blew, as the Deering boys gave Portland a scare in the semifinals before going down to defeat.
In Augusta, Waynflete continued its march with a 20-point dismantling of Hall-Dale.
On the girls' side, McAuley ousted Portland with ease in the semifinals, while Cheverus took a healthy halftime lead over upstart Windham, only to score just 10 points in the second half and suffer a painful loss.
McAuley would win its fourth straight regional title, coming to life in the second half to eliminate Windham, as senior standout Allie Clement was named the regional tournament's most valuable player/sportsperson for a second consecutive year.
Portland then battled Bonny Eagle in the Western A boys' final and after trailing at halftime, kicked into gear and went on to take the region for the first time in seven seasons. Bulldogs senior Justin Zukowski was named the region's MVP.
In Augusta, Waynflete won the regional title for the first time and it wasn't even close, as the Flyers handled Maranacook, 62-38. Senior standout Serge Nyirikamba was named the regional MVP.
That meant three local teams played into March and each would put on a show in their respective state finals.
McAuley played first, meeting Oxford Hills in the Class A girls' final and the Lions struggled early, falling behind, 12-4, but they hit their stride and gradually pulled away for a 67-41 victory, joining Westbrook (1978-81) and Lawrence (1991-94) as the only four-time champions.
Portland was a decided underdog in the minds of many when they took on defending champion Hampden Academy in the Class A boys' final, but the Bulldogs carried play from the get-go, raced to a 22-5 lead and never looked back as they won their first title in a decade, 54-40.
Waynflete brought the curtain down when it faced Houlton in the Class C boys' final in Augusta and the game was so good that 32 minute couldn't decide a winner. Even though the Flyers played like champions, they couldn't quite capture the Gold Ball, as they went down to an agonizing 58-56 defeat.
Even then, we weren't completely finished, as Friday night, McAuley's Clement was named Miss Maine Basketball, an ideal coda to a season that had no peer.
Michael's top five basketball stories...
5) Deering boys persevere
The 2013-14 season was a challenging one to say the least for the Deering boys. The Rams graduated some top players and a coaching change always brings a period of adjustment, but all of that paled in comparison to the tragedy which struck the program in early November, just before the start of the season, when longtime freshman coach (and one-time Deering athletic director) Brendan Conway died unexpectedly at just 34. Several of the Rams varsity players once played for Conway and did all they could to honor his memory. Deering was competitive all season, posted a 12-6 record, then, when all appeared lost in the quarterfinals, it somehow rallied from a late deficit to force overtime before beating Marshwood in a thriller. That victory's inspiration was obvious. Even though the Rams lost to Portland in the semifinals, they added a proud chapter to the program's rich history.
4) Portland girls wake up the echoes
In the 1980s and 1990s, there were the Portland girls and there was everyone else. Then, the program ran into tough times and missed the playoffs seven times in eight seasons before everything turned around this winter. A determined senior core, bolstered by some top-notch youngsters, expected to compete, but no one foresaw an 11-1 start. The Bulldogs would not only make the playoffs, but for the first time in a decade, they won a game, edging Gorham in a down-to-the-wire quarterfinal. While Portland's run ended with a loss to eventual champion McAuley in the semifinals, the Bulldogs have returned to the discussion of top programs and are primed for future success.
3) Waynflete comes oh-so-close
The Waynflete boys got to the Western C Final in 2012-13 and were even better this time around. The Flyers, behind senior star Serge Nyirikamba, standout junior point guard Harry Baker-Connick and leadership from the likes of seniors Henry Cleaves and Joey Schnier, stumbled only twice during the regular season and regularly thumped the opposition. After a 15-2 campaign, Waynflete earned the No. 3 seed for the Western C tournament and had no trouble downing Monmouth, Hall-Dale and Maranacook to punch its ticket to states for the very first time. There, the Flyers shot to a 7-0 lead over favored Houlton, but soon found themselves down, 24-12. Undaunted, Waynflete rallied, took a fourth quarter lead and even had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but couldn't do so and the game went to overtime. There's despite a heroic effort, the Flyers' title hopes were dashed, 58-56. It won't be the last time Waynflete plays on that stage.
2) Portland defies the pundits
Portland was viewed by many as the team to beat in Western A and the Bulldogs didn't disappoint, going 18-0 in the regular season before beating Noble, Deering and Bonny Eagle to win the region. Portland was looked at differently, however, going into the state game against defending champion Hampden Academy, which was riding a 43-game winning streak and was being hailed as unstoppable. It took the Bulldogs all of one quarter to turn expectations on their ear, however, as they raced to a 22-5 lead. Portland never let up and rolled, 54-40, winning its first crown in a decade. So much for the "experts."
1) McAuley does it all
McAuley's girls' basketball team wore a bulls-eye like never before this winter. Graduation and injuries meant the Lions were vulnerable early and sure enough, McAuley's 56-game win streak was snapped by Thornton Academy Jan. 7. The Lions' season was at a crossroads, but not surprisingly, this group came together and never looked back. McAuley would win its final 13 games, never was seriously tested in the postseason and pulled off a rare fourth straight title. If that wasn't enough, senior star Allie Clement put an ideal punctuation mark on the campaign by being named Miss Maine Basketball. A perfect ending indeed.