A recent courtside conversation about Aroostook County schoolboy basketball yielded a fairly unique observation — that the best team in the north country this winter might not hail from one of its larger schools.
Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook coach Brett Russell doesn’t mind his program being complimented that way, but being the best in The County is not the Warriors’ goal.
That’s to be the best in Class D.
“It’s a great honor, actually, because there are some great teams in Aroostook County,” said Russell, whose team is 13-1 after Monday’s 70-27 victory over Class C Hodgdon.
“And you know what? I’m not going to trade my team for any of them. I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, but I’ve got a good group of kids and I’m not going to say we’re the best team in The County but I think we could probably handle ourselves against anybody up here.”
Southern Aroostook, with 113 students in grades 9-12, is a basketball hotbed these days, particularly the girls’ team that won Class D state championships in 2018 and 2019, a third straight North title in 2020 and now is atop the Heal point ratings again with a 15-0 record.
The boys’ team reached the 2020 Class D North final but has not captured a regional or state championship since 1991, when Russell was a player and the Warriors defeated Valley of Bingham in the state final.
This year’s club has won 11 straight games since a 67-64 loss at Class C leader Fort Kent on Dec. 18 when Southern Aroostook was missing two starters. The Warriors avenged that loss with a 57-49 victory over then-undefeated Fort Kent on Jan. 22 — the team’s only victory to date by fewer than 33 points on a schedule consisting of four Class C opponents and five Class D foes.
“The big game for us was the Fort Kent [win], we were really looking forward to that one,” Russell said. “Now I’m preaching, ‘Let’s keep our focus and keep this roll going heading into the tournament. Let’s not look past any team.’”
Southern Aroostook is led by seniors Hunter Burpee and Chris Caswell and juniors Graham Siltz and Buddy Porter.
The 6-foot-2 Burpee, a 1,000-point career scorer, is averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds per game through a blend of inside play, 3-point shooting range and as a trailer on the fast break. Siltz, at 6-3, is a strong rebounder who has become more assertive offensively and averages 10 points and 10 boards per game.
Porter quarterbacks the offense and is described by Russell as “the glue that holds this ship together,” while Caswell is a defensive catalyst and 6-foot-1 sophomore Dylan Burpee — Hunter’s brother — is the team’s second-leading scorer with 16 points and five assists per game.
Top reserves are junior Drake Weston, sophomore Brennan Burpee — Hunter and Dylan’s cousin — and freshman Trafton Russell, the coach’s son.
“Everything we get offensively comes off our defense,” coach Russell said. “Most likely we’re trying to look for our fast break and get easy shots in the open court, and if it’s a halfcourt game we’ll go inside to our big guys. But defense dictates what we do. We’re up in your face trying to force turnovers whether it’s a fullcourt press or halfcourt trap.”
While Southern Aroostook isn’t focused on County supremacy, Russell said his team benefited competitively from playing against Caribou, Houlton and Presque Isle, the region’s three Class B schools, during last winter’s regionalized basketball schedule.
The Warriors went 11-4 to win the Aroostook County Division II championship before falling to Division I champion Caribou in the final game.
But it wasn’t the same as the typical tournament experience.
“Having that goal of being able to go to the tournament means the world to all of us,” Russell said. “Last year was great … but it wasn’t the same as going to the tournament and playing for that ultimate goal. The ultimate goal of every team every year is to get to Bangor and to have the shot at Northern Maine and the gold ball.”
Russell said Machias is the team to beat in Class D North as the Bulldogs are off to a 12-0 start and are the only team ahead of Southern Aroostook in the Heal points.
Machias defeated Southern Aroostook 57-46 in the 2020 Class D North final, and the Warriors have been waiting for two years for the chance at a possible tournament rematch.
“I’d be lying and remiss if I didn’t say that that’s my goal, and I know that’s the goal of the kids, too,” Russell said. “If it comes to that, and hopefully it does, win, lose or draw we can walk out with our heads held high.”
And as for bragging rights in The County?
“I’m not going to say we are, but we could be one of the better teams,” he said.