Van Buren's Blake Martin jumps for a layup at the March 9 Division II championship against Southern Aroostook. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

The often lengthy bus rides from small town to small town are part of the sacrifice made by players, coaches, parents and fans of high school basketball teams around Aroostook County each winter.

So when the Van Buren boys and girls squads travel from the St. John Valley south to Danforth on Thursday — a trip that may take as long as two hours one way depending on the weather and road conditions — it’s usually no big deal.

This year it is a big deal for the Crusaders, who with that trip will become the last varsity teams in the state to begin their 2021-22 regular seasons, which for most schools around the state began nearly a month earlier on the weekend of Dec. 10-11.

It’s a game night many around Van Buren weren’t sure would come this winter due to continuing COVID-19 concerns.

“The kids were worried about it, the parents were worried about it, the coaches were worried about it,” longtime Van Buren boys basketball coach Steve Lapierre said. “We didn’t know how it was going to shake down, and going forward we still don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just going to take it day by day. We’re just glad to have a season right now.”

Rising COVID-19 rates in The County during the late fall prompted schools in the SAD 24 communities of Van Buren, Hamlin and Cyr Plantation to be shifted to remote learning from Nov. 19 until Dec. 23, the start of Christmas break.

That meant no practices for Van Buren’s basketball teams beginning Nov. 22, when teams around the state could begin preparing for the upcoming season under the Maine Principals’ Association winter sports schedule.

A subsequent school board vote allowed the Van Buren teams to begin practicing as Christmas break began and a Dec. 28 vote restored the schools to in-person learning this week upon the students’ return from vacation.

“They did vote to allow our kids to begin to practice on Dec. 23 because that’s when our remote instruction ended, so our school got out at noon that day and later that afternoon we had practices,” said Matt Rossignol, the legendary former Van Buren basketball player and coach who now is his alma mater’s athletic administrator.

It’s been a case of playing catch-up since then in Van Buren, a school with an enrollment of 75 students in grades 9-12 and enough basketball players only to field varsity teams.

The Crusaders’ boys squad had completed six practices and a scrimmage against the Caribou High School junior varsity team as of Tuesday morning, and with the trip to East Grand barely 48 hours away Lapierre was doing his best to further familiarize his players with the team’s offensive and defensive systems.

“Nothing is going to be fine-tuned,” he said. “What’s going to suffer is the conditioning because you don’t have that three-week span [before games usually start] when you can really work hard on conditioning.

“There’s going to have to be a sacrifice here and there because if you want to be conditioned you’re probably not going to have as many plays in and you’re not going to be as refined in what you’re doing.”

Lapierre welcomed 10 players to practice Monday, up from just five last week.

“We had a few more kids last year but I’ve got a few kids this year whether because of COVID or the late start didn’t join,” he said. “Whatever the reason, we have two or three kids who  probably could play that aren’t playing.”

The boys roster includes three players with no varsity experience but seven players back from the 2020-21 squad that finished 11-3 and reached the championship game of the Aroostook League Division II playoffs — a regionalized postseason that replaced the canceled statewide tournament last winter.

“We’ve got a good corps back,” Lapierre said. “I’m hoping that we should be able to compete well as the year goes on. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be playing our best ball and the kids are comfortable with what we’re doing. That’s the goal.”

First-year girls varsity coach Brian Massey faces an even greater competitive challenge.

Massey conducted a limited offseason basketball program after being hired midway through the summer, then held Zoom meetings three times weekly when practices weren’t allowed during the traditional winter preseason to further introduce his players to his system.

He hopes to have eight players available Thursday, including one eighth-grader and two others who haven’t played basketball before.

“Everyone’s trying hard, but I understand the situation that we’re in,” said Massey, a former middle-school basketball coach in Caribou and a varsity tennis coach at Presque Isle High School.

“There’s a lot of things working against us this year, but the girls are positive. They’re upbeat. They just want to play.”

The Van Buren boys and girls teams will play 17 of their originally scheduled 18 regular-season games, coronavirus and weather permitting.

“The other athletic directors have been fantastic in being willing to do things that normally you wouldn’t do as far as the schedule goes,” Rossignol said. “You would never give your kids four games in six days, but ADs have been really flexible in understanding the situation we find ourselves in and I’m so very appreciative of that.”

Van Buren’s coronavirus-adjusted schedule is considerably more condensed than usual, as the Crusaders’ regular-season finales are scheduled at home against Wisdom of Saint Agatha on Feb. 9.

That’s 17 games apiece in 35 days, and after removing the five Sundays when high school practices aren’t allowed that means more games than practices once the season begins.

“You’re just hoping that the kids respond and you don’t get many injuries and you can compete,” Lapierre said. “It’s going to be on-the-job training when we get into the games. You just have to try to figure out what it is that you want to get in and be more proficient in, and the rest is going to be using a lot of early timeouts.”

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...