Nokomis High School's Cooper Flagg takes the ball to the hoop during the Maine Class A boys basketball championship game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

As one basketball season ends, another begins for some of the best young players in the state.

An AAU team featuring freshmen twins Cooper and Ace Flagg of Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and sophomore Landon Clark of Bangor travel into rarefied air during three months of national competition.

Their Maine United squad will be the first AAU club from the Pine Tree State to earn a berth in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball Leagues 15-and-under division. That national collection of 32 teams will compete in five spring and summer tournaments capped by the Peach Jam in Augusta, Georgia, in late July that will crown the champion of Nike’s summer circuits.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity for the boys to show what they can do against the absolute best players in the country,” said former University of Maine basketball standout Andy Bedard, who coaches the team.

Joining the Flagg twins and Clark on the roster are freshmen Dawson Townsend of Nokomis, Leo McNabb and Sammy Nzeyimana of Cheverus High School in Portland and Gabe Lash of Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro and eighth-grader Kaden Bedard of Montverde (Florida) Academy, the coach’s son.

“We joke about how it’s a lonely bench because we fluctuate from seven to eight players and six of them have been together since third grade,” said the elder Bedard, who is coaching the team with former UMaine basketball player Kelly Flagg, the twins’ mother.

Maine United will play in four Nike EYBL tournaments in an effort to qualify for the Peach Jam through a point system that measures success in all four events. Those tournaments begin in Orlando, Florida, on April 8-10, followed by events in Indianapolis (April 22-24), Louisville, Kentucky (May 28-29) and Kansas City, Missouri (July 7-10).

They will also enter other tournaments during the spring, beginning with a Hoop Group event in Westford, Massachusetts, and continuing with another tourney in Orlando.

Maine United earned its Nike EYBL spot through strong play last year on the MADE Hoops circuit as well as winning a Zero Gravity National Finals age-group championship.

“It’s really exciting that we can do it with a group that’s always been together, and it shows that nothing was given to us,” said Cooper Flagg, who as a freshman led Nokomis to the Class A state championship earlier this month. “We’ve worked hard for it and everything we’re getting now is a product of our hard work and success.”

Maine United gathered for its first practice of the new season last Saturday at the Eastern Maine Sports Academy in Veazie, barely a week after the conclusion of the high school season.

Bedard describes the camaraderie Maine United as one of its biggest assets as it prepares to square off against many of the best 15-year-olds in the country in a league whose alumni over its 11-year history include NBA stars Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, Trae Young, Ben Simmons and Devin Booker.

“It’s an unselfish mentality,” Bedard said. “It’s ‘How do we win?’ and it varies from night to night because they read each other and feed off the energy of wanting to take care of each other, which is different from most AAU programs.”

Nike’s support for the team includes basketball shoes, uniforms and other gear, but Maine United also relies on sponsors for its travel and gym rental expenses, particularly Jason Agren, a former UMaine football player and owner of Agren Appliance, a southern Maine store chain.

The Maine United contingent sees its promotion to the Nike EYBL not only as a reflection of previous success, but also as the continuing chance to represent Maine basketball in a national setting,

“Being invited and going there, although it’s flattering, is really not the goal and hopefully this paves the way for more opportunities for younger Maine teams that want to make the commitment that these guys have made to possibly get that opportunity,” Bedard said.

Such exposure has already paid dividends for Cooper Flagg, who is listed among the top players in the Class of 2025 in numerous national AAU rankings and has earned scholarship offers from Bryant University, the University of Albany and the University of Maine.

Flagg displayed those same skills at the high school level for the first time this winter and led Nokomis to a 21-1 record and the first boys basketball state championship in school history.

“We shake our heads at some of the things he can do, but we’re going to ask more of him,” Bedard said. “Like looking in the mirror, he’s going to play against kids similar to his size and strength. We’re going to push him like we push everybody else and he’s going to lead us and we’re going to need him to go find more this year for us.”

Ernie Clark

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...