Jonesport Beals coach Skipper Alley speaks to his squad during a break in the action during the 2020 Class D North quarterfinal at the Cross Insurance Center. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

One of the state’s legendary schoolboy basketball programs almost didn’t have enough players to field a team this winter.

Just seven players were on the Royals’ original varsity roster, and after the first two games one of those opted to leave the team.

That left coach Skipper Alley’s club just six players strong, and while Jonesport-Beals is unlikely to add to the 10 state championships and 14 regional titles the program has won since the school opened a little more than five decades ago, the eighth-seeded Royals (8-10) are still alive as they approach Wednesday’s Class D North home preliminary against No. 9 Easton (6-11).

“Starting the season we were young and we didn’t have the numbers,” Alley said. “I think we’ve far exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

The roster size didn’t come as a big surprise. Jonesport-Beals is one of the state’s smallest high schools, and this year’s enrollment of 65 students in grades 9-12 includes just 28 boys.

“The high school’s small and we don’t have a lot of boys right now,” said Alley, a Jonesport-Beals alumnus. “The boys who don’t play basketball really don’t play anything, and in small schools you really need boys to play multiple sports.”

Only two members of the Royal 6, junior Damon Beal and sophomore Brevan Kenney, began the season with significant varsity experience. They were joined by two players who had swung between Jonesport-Beals’ varsity and junior varsity teams last winter in senior Robbie Robinson and junior Garrett Libby along with two freshmen in Kaden Beal and Eli Peabody whose  middle-school season was canceled last year due to COVID-19.

There wouldn’t have been enough players for Jonesport-Beals to hold traditional practices this year but for several alumni who volunteered to help so the Royals could run five-on-five drills.

“It got us up to 10 players so while I was going over something they could play defense or offense for me,” Alley said. “Those kids all played for me over the last four or five years, and they’re very interested in the success of the program. They know what we’re trying to do and they’ve been very good to help.”

The team also was forced to adjust its style of play to address its lack of depth. Long known for fast-paced play at both ends of the court, Jonesport-Beals had to adopt a more deliberate approach.

“I always press and play man-to-man defense, but we haven’t been able to press and we’ve played very, very little man all year,” Alley said. “Offensively I’ve had to change a few things around, too. We’ve adapted.”

Jonesport-Beals got off to a slow start, dropping its first three games and four of its first five.

But a trip to Sumner of East Sullivan with just five players due to COVID-19 — one of two even more shorthanded games the Royals played this season — offered hope. Jonesport-Beals hung with the Class C Tigers throughout the contest and Peabody hit the deciding basket with eight seconds left as the Royals pulled out a 47-45 victory.

“They didn’t give in,” Alley said, “and when we got down to the end of the game and made a shot to beat them and I thought, ‘These kids have got a little grit.’”

Jonesport-Beals has gone 6-6 since then, including four games played on consecutive nights last week to conclude the regular season.

More than half of the state’s varsity teams did not play a full 18-game schedule this winter due to COVID-19 issues, but the Royals weren’t going to be denied their chance to play every game they could.

“Last year COVID cheated those kids out of a lot of the season and they never got to the tournament,” said Alley, whose club played a regionalized Down East pod schedule last winter.

“We had an 18-game schedule this year and the boys and I talked about it and I talked to the athletic director and said if there’s any way possible we want to play. We don’t care who it is, we want to play our 18 games.”

The Royals split those last four games, falling only at undefeated Machias before dropping a 30-27 overtime decision at Bangor Christian in their season finale.

“We didn’t get any practices in between and it would have been nice to prepare, but I figured we’d practiced all season and they knew what they had to do,” Alley said. “We got two of them and nearly got a third. The Bangor Christian game wasn’t very high scoring for either team but the guys played well. I was proud of them.”

Alley anticipates the prelim against Easton to be a typical 8-9 matchup with either team capable of winning the chance to play top-ranked Machias in the quarterfinals next Monday night at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center.

“That was our goal from the beginning of the season, to try to get to Bangor,” Alley said. “I think it would be really good for them to get on that floor and get used to it a little. We’re young, and the atmosphere up there is so different than it is in the local gyms.

“In the wintertime, Maine’s all about basketball and no one wants to end their season.”

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...