By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff
The cancellation of the 2021 high school basketball tournament represented an opportunity lost for all those who look forward to the annual Maine rite of winter.
For many schools it was the loss of players who opted not to return to the sport during the pandemic for myriad reasons, ranging from having to wear facemasks to not wanting to risk spreading COVID-19 to older family members.
That has meant reduced roster sizes at the subvarsity and even varsity levels at some schools.
Also lost last winter was one of only four chances every high school basketball player has to experience the tournament’s excitement and to share it with teammates, family, the community and even the opponents.
For others, lost was the chance to contend for a championship, or at least gain experience under the bright lights, for a chance to win it all this year.
The Ellsworth Eagles don’t see the 2021 season quite that way.
Coach Peter Austin’s club competed last winter in the Big East Conference pod that included the region’s three large-school teams in Bangor, Brewer and Hampden Academy as well as the traditional Big East Class B North entries.
The senior-less Eagles won the Class B side of the Big East pod to advance to the championship game against Class A-AA winner Brewer, where the Witches pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 68-62 victory.
“I thought we did well last year, especially as a young team,” said Ellsworth senior Hunter Curtis, a fourth-year starter. “With the A teams we played it gave us a little extra competition and that’s helping us this year, for sure.”
The Eagles have been at the top of the Class B North standings throughout this winter with a nucleus led by Curtis, sophomore Chance Mercier and senior Gage Hardy.
“We came into the year ready to go and we’re looking to keep on going,” Curtis said. “We’re still young at heart, but we’ve done well to mature throughout the season.”
This year’s roster is aiming for another championship, this one of the more traditional kind, before what the players hope are big fan turnouts also eager to return to the tournament.
“We were young coming in this year because we didn’t have the playoff experience,” Mercier said. “But our experience has come a long way, and when the crowd’s back it gets us going.”
These Eagles also look forward to making memories similar to those made by Ellsworth’s championship teams of the past.
Take the 1953 and 1954 squads coached by Charlie Katsiaficas and led by Johnny Edes and Jack Scott. Both won state championships and advanced to the New England tournament. In 1954 the Eagles defeated Providence, Rhode Island, in their opener and battled powerful Hillhouse of New Haven, Connecticut, to the final seconds before bowing 54-53 in front of 13,000 fans at the Boston Garden.
Class B state championships followed for the Eagles in 1964 and 1966, and then there was the “miracle minute” of Feb. 19, 1988, when Ellsworth’s Tim Scott — Jack’s son — scored 13 points in one minute of play to rally the Eagles from an 11-point deficit to a 65-64 victory over Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln in the Eastern Maine Class B final.
More recently the Eagles had an undefeated regular season in 2011 and reached the regional final before falling to eventual state champion Camden Hills of Rockport, then Ellsworth captured its most recent Class B North crown in 2016.
During the last two years of tournament play, the Eagles reached the 2019 semifinals and 2020 Class B North championship game. In both instances they fell to Caribou, which won back-to-back state championships.
Curtis has his own favorite tournament memory to date, that of Ellsworth’s 23-point quarterfinal victory over Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor during his freshman season in 2019.
“The tournament’s crazy in general,” he said. “That was a big game, a huge rivalry game.”
The Eagles have an even bigger goal this February.
“Coach Austin’s always had the saying, ‘We’ve got to win our last game,’ so we’re hoping to keep going,” he said. “We don’t want to lose. We want to get there and we want to win.”
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