AUGUSTA—After a program-best 15-1 regular season, the Waynflete boys’ basketball team wasn’t satisfied.
That’s because it’s goals are much loftier and it also felt it wasn’t getting the respect it deserved.
So the Flyers went out and dethroned the team that has been the gold standard in Western Class C basketball the past five years in a statement-making semifinal round thriller Thursday evening at the Augusta Civic Center.
No. 2 Waynflete was steamrolled by defending state champion Dirigo, the No. 3 seed, in the first period, falling behind 6-0 quickly and 19-10 after eight minutes but these Flyers, who lost decisively in the semifinals each of the past two seasons, weren’t about to buckle.
Sparked by the play of senior Mohammed Suja off the bench, Waynflete rallied within a point before going into the half down just four, 27-23.
Then, in the third quarter, speedy sophomore Harry Baker-Connick made his presence felt with nine points and the Flyers completed their comeback, finally taking the lead on a Suja 3-ball with 3:23 to go. The Cougars rallied to tie the game, 42-42, heading for the fourth quarter, but there, with its season and legacy on the line, Waynflete sparkled.
A layup from junior Serge Nyirikamba put the Flyers on top to stay and set the tone for several easy baskets in the frame. Leading by only two, 50-48, with under two minutes to play, Nyirikamba made a layup and Baker-Connick hit two foul shots, but that breathing room instantly disappeared when Dirigo senior sharpshooter Travis Frost canned a 3 and Waynflete turned the ball over, giving the Cougars a chance to tie.
Frost got another good look, but missed the shot and Baker-Connick made one free throw, senior Paul Runyambo drained two more and Nyirikamba sealed it with another and the Flyers went on to a 58-51 victory.
Nyirikamba led all scorers with 17 points, Baker-Connick added 12 and Runyambo and Suja had eight apiece as Waynflete improved to 17-1, ended the Cougars’ season at 18-2 and advanced to meet top-ranked Boothbay (19-1) in the Western Class C Final, the program’s first regional final in three decades, Saturday at 9 p.m., in Augusta.
“It was the most emotional game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Baker-Connick. “We came in knowing Dirigo was a very good team, but we knew if we played fundamentally sound, we could stay in it and we could win it. I felt we were going to win it. We just had to hold on with our defense and we hit our free throws. We feel like we definitely still have a chip on our shoulder. People don’t think Waynflete has a very good team, so we have to go out and prove it to them.”
The Flyers entered 2012-13 with optimism and lived up to billing, producing a program-best 15-1 regular season mark. Waynflete got to avenge its playoff loss in the opener, back on Dec. 7, when it built a big lead, then escaped at Old Orchard by the skin of its teeth, 50-49. The Flyers then won at Traip (48-39), at home over Lake Region (65-54), Sacopee (71-33) and North Yarmouth Academy (70-28) and over Greenville (58-28, in a game played in Augusta). Waynflete opened 2013 by losing at Western B power Cape Elizabeth (52-34), but bounced back with a hard-fought 47-44 home win over Fryeburg, held off visiting Old Orchard Beach (61-50), then handled host A.R. Gould (81-41), host and defending Class B state champion Yarmouth (62-38), visiting Traip (71-59), Hyde (70-52) and Wells (67-60), host NYA (80-42) and host Sacopee (80-31) to wind up with the No. 2 seed in the region.
Monday, in the quarterfinals, Waynflete had little trouble with No. 10 Monmouth in a 78-47 decision.
Dirigo won the 2012 championship, 74-67, over Lee Academy. This winter, the Cougars have been very impressive again, but after opening with a 13-game win streak, Dirigo lost to Boothbay. The Cougars then won their final four to wind up 17-1 and third behind Boothbay and Waynflete in Western C.
In its quarterfinal Monday, Dirigo held off No. 6 Old Orchard Beach, 50-47, to advance.
The Cougars won both previous playoff meetings with the Flyers (please see sidebar). The teams don’t play in the regular season.
Thursday, Waynflete appeared doomed to repeat its script of the past couple seasons, but this is a new team, a better team, and the Flyers did what they had to do to make history.
Just six seconds in, Frost made a jumper. The next time down the floor, Senior Robbie Babb made two foul shots. When Frost made a layup with 6:39 to go in the first period, Dirigo had raced to a 6-0 lead.
Senior Jack Cutler, whose impassioned play was visible and audible all evening, got Waynflete on the board with a driving layup at 6:21, but Babb added two more free throws. Suja then made his presence felt, taking a pass from Runyambo and making a layup.
“We’ve had a tough time coming out strong in the first half,” Runyambo said. “That’s a huge problem for us. After that, we pick it up. We got momentum when Suja came off the bench. He got us going.”
Babb scored on a layup, but Flyers senior Max Belleau hit a pair of free throws. Cougars sophomore Tyler Frost then began to heat up with a 3. After a Runyambo putback, Frost made another 3. Then, after a Runyambo leaner, Frost made his third 3 in a 3 minute, 43 second span, this one as time expired, and Dirigo appeared in command, up, 19-10.
“I don’t know if they came out hot as much as they came out more focused on us,” Belleau said. “We talked about stuff they do against the zone on offense and we didn’t execute that well at first. Offensively, it wasn’t so much taking bad shots as it was rushing. We turned it over a little, but not too bad. We had to just settle down.”
Waynflete chipped away in quarter number two.
A layup from junior Henry Cleaves was countered by a free throw from Cougars freshman Riley Robinson. Suja then took a pass from Baker-Connick and hit a 3 and Nyirikamba got on the board with a driving layup to cut the deficit to 21-17.
After Dirigo junior Dylan Kidder made a free throw, Nyirikamba put home a miss and junior Joey Schnier did the same and just like that, the deficit was a single point, 22-21.
Senior Chad Snowman countered with a 3, then scored on a putback for the Cougars, but in the waning seconds, Nyirikamba made a layup and Waynflete was down a manageable four points at the break, 27-23.
“It was good news, bad news at halftime,” Flyers coach Rich Henry said. “The bad news is we were down four. The good news was that we were only down four.”
Babb started the second half with a putback, but the Flyers continued to creep closer as Baker-Connick scored his first points on a leaner, then Baker-Connick fed Nyirikamba for a layup. After Babb made a layup, Baker-Connick took a pass from Cutler and drained a 3 to again pull the Flyers within a point, 31-30.
A Travis Frost layup pushed the lead to three, but Nyirikamba made a free throw, then, with 4:28 left in the third, Baker-Connick stole the ball and raced in for a layup to forge the first tie of the contest, 33-33.
The Cougars refused to relinquish the lead, however, as sophomore Kaine Hutchins coolly knocked down a 3, but Belleau hit a jumper and with 3:23 to go in the quarter, Runyambo set up Suja for a 3-pointer and Waynflete was on top at last, 38-36.
After a steal, Dirigo tied the score on a layup from Travis Frost, but Cutler spotted an open Runyambo for a layup and Baker-Connick scored on a fastbreak layup, making it 42-38 Flyers and forcing Cougars coach Travis Magnusson to call timeout.
“We started going fast-paced, which is what we’re best at,” said Baker-Connick. “I got a couple wide open layups because of passes from my teammates and I got into a groove. When we get defensive stops is when we get our offense going. Our defense translated into easy offense. This year our chemistry is the best we’ve ever had. That translates onto the floor.”
The timeout worked as Dirigo scored the final four points of the period on a Babb free throw, a driving layup from Frost and a free throw from senior Hunter Ross.
It was clearly anyone’s game entering the final quarter and the Cougars, having won 13 straight regional tournament contests on the Augusta Civic Center floor, appeared to have the upper hand, but they would never lead down the stretch and befitting the play of the champions they hope to become, the Flyers closed out their palpitating victory.
It took just 47 seconds for Waynflete go ahead to stay as Belleau set up Nyirikamba for a layup.
Belleau added a layup to stretch the lead to four, but Frost scored on a runner to make it 46-44 with 6:15 to go.
Nyirikamba continued his second half dominance with a layup and with 4:21 remaining, after being fouled on a drive to the hoop, Nyirikamba made one of two foul shots for a 49-44 lead.
A putback from Hutchins got the Cougars back to within three, but a Belleau free throw with 2:20 showing made it 50-46.
Dirigo made it a two-point game on a Babb layup 18 seconds later, but once more the Flyers got an easy look as Runyambo set up Nyirikamba for a layup.
“We knew how to move the ball against their trap,” Runyambo said.
“These kids really like passing to each other,” Henry said. “We’ve had that as a trait the past two, three years. They’re unselfish and like seeing each other do well. In the first half, we were willing to make bad passes. In the second half, we made good passes.”
With just under a minute to play, Baker-Connick calmly made two free throws for a six-point lead, but Frost buried a 3 with 44.6 seconds to go and after a Waynflete turnover, the door swung open for the Cougars to rally.
Frost would get the ball in the left corner with a good look to tie the score, but his shot was just off. A putback from Robinson was no good and Nyirikamba got the rebound. Problem was, his momentum was carrying him out of bounds, so Nyirikamba had to pass the ball to Baker-Connick to avoid another turnover.
Baker-Connick was fouled with 28.4 seconds showing and he hit the first of two free throws for a 55-51 lead.
Dirigo still very much had a chance, but Robinson missed a 3 and Runyambo got the rebound and was fouled with 17.4 seconds to go. Runyambo went to the line and hit the two biggest foul shots of his career.
Then, after Frost missed a desperation 3, Nyirikamba got the rebound and was fouled and hit one of two free throws to essentially end it.
When the horn sounded, at 8:31 p.m., Waynflete had itself an inspirational 58-51 victory and punched its ticket to play in a regional final for the first time in 30 seasons.
“Finally!” said Runyambo. “We were here sophomore and junior years and we lost. We were ready. We wanted this game. It feels good. Now we have to get the next one. We’ve talked a lot about not being in many close games, but the seniors who have been in big games knew how to take care of it.”
“It wasn’t really one thing (that led to the comeback),” said Belleau. “Harry got moving a little bit. Suja came off the bench. We love to run and get up and down. They hit some shots at the end, but I felt very confident. They ratcheted up the pressure and we found guys cutting for easy hoops. It just feels so good, especially for those of us on the team the past two years. It speaks to the work that (athletic director) Ross Burdick and Coach Henry have done. Since the’ve gotten here, the program has gotten better and better and you can see the results. We think we play a tough schedule. We went 15-1. We feel like we still have a little to prove.”
“I don’t think we could’ve played worse in the first quarter given the atmosphere and magnitude of the game, but we bounced back and I’m just so honored to coach this team,” Henry added. “I think we’ve got resilience. These kids have been in big games in soccer and they’ve been here now a couple times. You have to get used to it. For Dirigo it’s almost a birthright. The last time they weren’t playing in the final was in 2008. I told (my guys), ‘We have to respect these guys.’ They came out really aggressive. We talk about our length and athleticism. They’re fundamentally sound and scrappy. They beat us to every loose ball and stripped the ball from us and we didn’t react well. After awhile, we settled down. That was the key. I said, ‘We’re happy to be in the semifinals. These guys expect to be in the semifinals. This is what they’re about.’ They’re an unbelievable program. Travis is an unbelievably skilled coach. It really took a lot of work on our part.”
Nyirikamba, like his team, started slowly but finished with a game-high 17 points.
“I think that if I were to model the kind of player I want on my team, it would be a picture of Serge Nyirikamba,” Henry said. “The way he warms up, the way he approaches the game. He got in foul trouble, but he was still able to play because he’s a cerebral kid.”
Baker-Connick might have had the game of his life with a dozen points and several assists.
“Harry is the prototypical pass-first point guard,” said Henry. “He’s also one of the fastest players I’ve coached. He had to get confident using his speed. Some of his passes were game-changers. Once we settled down and realized we needed to possess and not shoot, we did OK.”
Runyambo and Suja each added eight points, Belleau, who was beaten and bloodied and wrapped in ice after the game, finished with seven, while Cleaves, Cutler and Schnier all had two.
“Everyone on the team can score,” Runyambo said. “Serge and Jack usually do most of the scoring. Max, Suja and I can score, but we move the ball and it’s easy for Serge to finish.”
Waynflete’s coach also credited his team’s balance.
“Max is one of our most versatile players,” said Henry. “Paul can jump out of the gym. He’s a great rebounder. Jack’s crafty. He’s long and blocks shots. Mohammed came in and really settled us down with a couple big shots. He was still hot from the game before. He’s a great shooter, a great kid. He’s another senior who’s really accepted his role and wants to see everyone else succeed.”
Waynflete managed a 27-25 advantage on the glass, as Runyambo collected nine rebounds and Cutler had eight. Belleau had three of the Flyers’ nine steals, while Cutler and Runyambo both had a pair. Cutler also blocked two shots, punctuating one with a primal scream.
The Flyers committed 18 turnovers (just seven in the second half), forced 20 and made 11-of-20 foul shots (including 6-of-8 with the game on the line).
Travis Frost paced Dirigo with 15 points in his swan song. Babb added 12, Tyler Frost nine, Hutchins and Snowman five apiece, Robinson three and Kidder and Ross one each. Robinson was the Cougars’ top rebounder with five. Babb and Kidder had four apiece. Robinson had two steals.
Dirigo finished 9-of-16 from the free throw line.
Waynflete’s quest for a first Class C title continues against pedigreed Boothbay in the regional final (the Seahawks surged late to escape No. 4 Madison in their semifinal, 55-43).
The Flyers don’t play the Seahawks in the regular season. Waynflete downed Boothbay, 54-42, in the 2009 preliminary round, the lone prior playoff meeting.
The last time the Flyers played in a regional final, they lost to Oak Grove-Coburn, a school which no longer exists, in the Western D championship game in February 1983, the month U2 released its “War” album, just weeks after John Riggins ran wild in the Super Bowl, just days before the final episode of M*A*S*H aired and a time when films like “Return of the Jedi” and “War Games” were serving as a backdrop.
This time around, Waynflete knows it can play for a Gold Ball for the first time and has a great shot at immortality. The Flyers know beating Boothbay won’t be easy, but they’re definitely excited for the challenge.
“We play for each other, we play for our coach, we play with heart,” Baker-Connick said. “We have to play hard and play our game. Hopefully we’ll get the ‘W.’ “
“We have to come out focused,” Belleau said. “We can come out stronger. We only have one day to prepare. Maybe that’s a good thing. We know the importance of Saturday night.”
“This feels good, but now we have to go get the next one,” Runyambo said. “We’re looking to win it all, honestly. It’s a special team. We’re all close. We know what to do. I think we’re ready.”
“(This opportunity) means a lot,” Henry added. “The administration has been unbelievably supportive. The parents of these players have been unbelievably supportive and they’re great to work with. It’s an unbelievable moment for us. It’s great to have the girls here too (they’ll play Madison for a regional crown Saturday). When I started (2004-05), the previous two years, Waynflete hadn’t won a game. Since then, we made the tournament every year but one, but the semifinals had been our threshold. It would be nice to get to Bangor (for the state championship game March 2).”
Waynflete junior Joey Schnier drives to the basket.
Waynflete senior Mohammed Suja launches a 3-pointer. Suja gave the Flyers key minutes off the bench.
Waynflete sophomore Harry Baker-Connick, who sparked the Flyers’ comeback with a huge third quarter, looks to beat a defender.
Waynflete senior Paul Runyambo drives on a Dirigo defender.
Waynflete senior Max Belleau runs the offense and looks for an open teammate. Belleau was beaten and battered during the contest, but still helped the Flyers to victory.
Waynflte junior Henry Cleaves dishes off under pressure.
Waynflete junior Serge Nyirikamba goes hard to the basket during the Flyers’ historic 58-51 come-from-behind win over defending Class C champion Dirigo in Thursday evening’s regional semifinal. The Flyers advanced to meet Boothbay in their first regional final appearance since 1983.
More photos below.
D- 19 8 15 9- 51
W- 10 13 19 16- 58
D- Tr. Frost 7-0-15, Babb 4-4-12, Tyler Frost 3-0-9, Hutchins 2-0-5, Snowman 2-0-5, Robinson 0-3-3, Kidder 0-1-1, Ross 0-1-1
W- Nyirikamba 7-3-17, Baker-Connick 4-3-12, Runyambo 3-2-8, Suja 3-0-8, Belleau 2-3-7, Cleaves 1-0-2, Cutler 1-0-2, Schnier 1-0-2
D (6) Tyler Frost 3, Tr. Frost, Hutchins, Snowman 1
W (3) Suja 2, Baker-Connick 1
D (25) Robinson 5, Babb, Kidder 4, Tr. Frost 3, Arsenault, Hutchins, Ross, Snowman 2, Tyler Frost 1
W (27) Runyambo 9, Cutler 8, Suja 3, Nyirikamba, Schnier 2, Baker-Connick, Belleau, Cleaves 1
D (5) Robinson 2, Babb, Tr. Frost, Snowman 1
W (9) Belleau 3, Cutler, Runyambo 2, Baker-Connick, Nyirikamba 1
D (1) Kidder 1
W (2) Cutler 2
2011 Western C semifinals
Dirigo 55 Waynflete 37
2009 Western C quarterfinals
Dirigo 66 Waynflete 38