Southern Aroostook coach Cliff Urquhart speaks to his team during a break in the action of the Feb. 25 Class D North championship at the Cross Insurance Center. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

DYER BROOK, Maine — Excellence is something most high school basketball squads strive for, but only a few may accomplish in any given season. The natural progression of players moving through their scholastic careers makes winning consistently over time hard to do.

Dynasties — teams that win bunches of championships for their schools — are rare. But there’s a dynasty on full display in Maine in the Southern Aroostook varsity girls basketball team.

In the state championship March 5, Southern Aroostook dominated from start to finish, trampling Seacoast Christian 58-18 en route to its third Class D state title in the past four tournaments.

The win checked off the one accomplishment that had eluded Warriors coach Cliff Urquhart in recent years — an undefeated season. Southern Aroostook finished with a 22-0 overall record.

SA had come close to a perfect season before. But during previous state championship runs, the Warriors squared off against Houlton a couple of times during the regular season and, more recently, came up just short in the 2020 state title game — the only loss the Warriors suffered.

“I don’t like to take credit for the team’s success,” Urquhart said. “It’s the players that make shots, play defense, they deserve the credit. I will shoulder the losses though, if we lose a close one, it’s on me.”

Few would argue that Southern Aroostook has been the dominant force in Class D for the past five years. The question now becomes, how long can the Warriors reign continue?

“What coach Urquhart, and the Southern Aroostook Warriors, have accomplished is nothing short of amazing,” Houlton coach Shawn Graham said. “You know they are going to be very well coached and give you a tough game.”

“Cliff has done an outstanding job at Southern Aroostook,” added long-time Fort Fairfield coach Larry Gardner. “He is well respected, not only in northern Maine, but throughout the state, for the job he has done with his teams and his commitment to the girls basketball program.”

A Washington County native, Urquhart grew up watching legendary Jonesport-Beals coach Ordie Alley lead the Royals to 13 regional championships, nine gold balls over a 39-year career and more than 600 games.

When he was in the eighth grade, his grandfather gave him a copy of the book “Hometown Champs, the Jonesport-Beals Basketball Legacy,” by Karlene K. Hale. That book struck a chord with the young Urquhart, planting the coaching seed that would grow into a full passion by his adulthood.

“I knew after reading it I wanted to get into coaching and do it in a small school,” he said. “There are things from that book that I incorporate into this program. I loved the way his teams played. When you played Jonesport back then, you felt like you had run two marathons after the game. That’s how I always pictured any team I coached playing, uptempo, get out in transition and play in your face defense for 32 minutes.”

Urquhart started his varsity coaching career at Katahdin with the boys program in 2008 and after two years there, made the switch to coaching girls at SACS in 2010.

Coaching high school basketball can be a year round proposition, the coach said. Besides the regular season, there are also summer camps, junior high and peewee basketball programs to be assessed.

In addition to his own practices, Urquhart, like many other successful coaches, spent a large amount of time on the road scouting other teams.

“I’ve been to Jonesport, Rangeley, Narraguagus, Woodland and Greenville,  most of the time on weeknights,” he said. “I would have gone to Vinalhaven (the team SA defeated in the state championship in 2018 for its first gold ball) if not for a snow storm so strong they wouldn’t let the ferry cross to the island that morning. Basketball consumes a lot of free time.”

That grind is something long-time coaches are well aware of, which often results in many taking a break from the game.

Early in his coaching career, Urquhart said he learned a great deal from fellow coaches Shawn Graham and Rob Moran of Houlton and Bill McAvoy, who was coaching the SA boys at the time.

The long-term success that SA has achieved is something other area coaches can appreciate.

“There have been a lot of schools who have had great runs,” Gardiner said. “I think of schools like the Cony girls winning seven gold balls over an 11-year period and Lawrence High School’s four straight Class A gold balls from 1991 to 1994 with Cindy Blodgett. I am not sure any have won five straight like the Washburn girls did from 2011 to 2015. Cliff has his teams playing at this elite level and building something special that can rival those teams.”

Having the right players come through the system has certainly made his job a little bit easier. Many of the current and most recent graduates are the offspring of talented SA players.

The Warriors have a sign that hangs in the girls locker room with six key things that the team reminds itself of as part of the program. They all have equal importance, not only in basketball but also in life.

Those six things are: embrace your role; manage expectations; ignore the noise; WE>ME; be accountable; and pay attention to the details.

“Right now is the perfect mix of kids in the program,” the coach said. “I envision the game being played a certain way and these kids are totally made to play that style. Playing that way is very demanding, it’s taxing. It takes a group of kids to buy in and they do that. If I told this group of kids that practice was on the moon tomorrow they’d try to find a way to get there.”

It helps that his practices are very business-like with each player knowing they must come in and go to work.

That work ethic is something former players point to for not only their success in basketball, but also in life.

“Coach Urquhart has a great understanding of basketball,” said Makaelyn Porter, a 2021 graduate for SACS who now plays for Husson University. “His preparation in practices and games helped us improve our individual and team play and be ready for any game situation. He always focuses on doing the little things right, which allows for overall success.”

“(Coach Urquhart) led us to victory on and off the court,” added Kacy Daggett, another 2021 graduate. “In my experience, he’s been a big influence on my life and was always there to support me even when basketball wasn’t involved.”

Daggett added Urquhart helped her to not only be physically prepared for opponents, but mentally as well. Those little lessons often had dual meanings.

“Coach attempts to subtly insert life lessons into his game strategies, and perpetuate them in our minds so that we may put them to use in the future,” Daggett said. “That is something I have decided to adopt, and capitalize on in my own life. I make sure to always play my own game, and not get caught up in the way others might play. I try to remain composed and be smart about my actions.”

Urquhart points to strong leadership from his assistant coaches over the years for keeping the Warriors on top of their game. Brandon McCarthy (the Warriors current assistant) has been invaluable to the program, the coach said, as he brings a different perspective to the game.

As a smaller school — with approximately 350 students in pre-K through grade 12 according to RSU 50 — the Warriors have been able to use eighth-graders on the varsity team. That extra year of varsity experience has only helped strengthen the squad.

“Using eighth-graders has been a staple here and we’ve had some kids that really have shown maturity,” Urquhart said. “You have to expect that an eighth-grader is going to make some mistakes. It’s about trust. You need to trust that they’ll have more productive moments than mistakes in the course of a game. Learning from those mistakes is crucial in the players’ development going forward.”

He also pointed to the work of Jim Lyons with the Oakfield peewees and Jess Greene with the Island Falls peewees as another testament to the Warriors’ success.

Urquhart said he never gave much thought to his personal coaching record or the 200-win milestone.

“I don’t do it for those reasons, I do it because I love basketball and I want to help make sure it’s an enjoyable experience for the student athletes,” he said. “To teach life lessons that can’t be taught in the classroom.”