The return of a somewhat traditional high school basketball season after a year’s absence begins Friday morning in a unique location — the Gilman Street gymnasium in Waterville.
That’s the middle ground where Forest Hills of Jackman and Vinalhaven will meet for a Class D South doubleheader, with the girls teams tipping off at 10:45 a.m. and the boys to follow at 12:15 p.m.
Most teams around the state will debut Friday night or Saturday, but for Vinalhaven opening day means getting on the ferry at 7 a.m. for the 15-mile, 1-hour, 15-minute ride to Rockland before a bus takes them the rest of the way to the Elm City. The Forest Hills entourage will depart Jackman via bus 45 minutes later for its 90-mile ride down U.S. Route 201.
Forest Hills will bring 25 of its 41 students in grades 9-12 to compete in the neutral-site season openers. Vinalhaven will be represented by 17 players from among the island school’s 42 students in grades 9-12.
“The school’s going to be pretty desolate,” Forest Hills athletic administrator and boys basketball coach Anthony Amero said.
Forest Hills and Vinalhaven squaring off to start the high school basketball season is nothing new, nor are long trips and neutral-site games required of them and other members of the East-West Conference that covers most of Class D South.
Vinalhaven typically has several overnight stays as either host or guest during the basketball season, though that number has been reduced this winter due to COVID-19 concerns.
Forest Hills will play six games at home, six games on the road and three games apiece at the Gilman Street gym and Augusta Civic Center this season to alleviate travel demands.
Forest Hills and Vinalhaven typically play back-to-back doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday in the Waterville area to open the season as the trip represents the longest of the regular season for both schools. But officials decided to split them this year while still ensuring that one of the games got in.
With the decision made to not play back-to-back games, the opening-day tradition was adjusted further to hold these first meetings earlier in the day so Vinalhaven’s players and coaches return to Rockland in time to catch the afternoon ferry back home.
“The only negative is — and I think we’ll still have some parents staying over — is that the good folks of Jackman and the good folks of Vinalhaven usually come to these games and stay over and do some Christmas shopping,” Amero said.
The Vinalhaven and Forest Hills basketball teams will begin the 2021-22 season from significantly different vantage points.
Vinalhaven did not have a traditional basketball program last winter as COVID-19 forced regionalized regular-season play and no statewide tournament. Instead, Nelson and boys basketball coach Josh Miller conducted an in-house basketball program.
“The girls weren’t overly interested,” said Sandy Nelson, who guided Vinalhaven’s girls basketball team to the Class D state championship in 2017 and a second straight Class D South title a year later. “We had a couple of girls, one was in the seventh grade and one was in the eighth grade, and then we had 10 or 11 boys and we just played amongst ourselves.”
While the Vikings’ boys team has 11 players to open the season, Nelson’s girls squad has just six players, in part because four players have moved off the island since the last time the team played an organized basketball game at the 2020 Class D South quarterfinals in Augusta.
“When you have four kids from a small school move away, that really has an impact,” said Nelson, who is also the school’s athletic administrator.
Forest Hills competed in a western Maine pod last winter, playing 11 games against Madison, Carrabec of North Anson, Mount Abram of Salem, Valley of Bingham, Greenville and Temple Academy of Waterville, with the boys then advancing to the semifinals of the Central Maine C/D pod tournament.
That’s after the Tigers won back-to-back Class D state championships in 2019 and 2020.
“They’re really excited to play,” Amero said. “You can really feel it in the energy level at school. It changes your school climate because kids have something else to look forward to. Athletics is just an extension of the academic day, really, there are lessons to be learned there for all of us and they’re really excited to get out there.
“It’s felt like Christmas around here all week.”