Ellsworth coach Peter Austin speaks to his squad during the Class B North semifinal at the Cross Insurance Center. on Feb. 23, 2022. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

The Ellsworth boys basketball team held a 10-point lead over Yarmouth last March in the Class B state championship game late in the fourth quarter.

But the team couldn’t hang on. The Clippers came roaring back, sending the game to overtime and overwhelming the Eagles to take home the title.

It’s been 58 years since Ellsworth won a boys basketball state title, but behind their star junior Chance Mercier, the Eagles are well-positioned for another title chance at this year’s tournament despite some stiff competition.

The loss has been on the mind of Mercier and the team this season as they took an undefeated record into the final week of the season.

“No one forgot it,” Mercier said of last year’s state championship loss. “It hurt us pretty bad, not going to lie. It hurt our coach, Peter [Austin], too. We’re having a great season this year and want to get back there.”

2023 Class B North tourney bracket

What’s different for the team this year is that it has played in more tight games and has fended off comebacks.

Against Old Town, another top team in Class B North, Ellsworth jumped out to a quick lead in a Dec. 27 game before Old Town rallied. Ellsworth edged out a 62-60 win.

On Dec. 29, Ellsworth started a game against Orono on fire, leading 27-14 after the first quarter. The Red Riots chipped away at the lead and got within 53-47 in the fourth before the Eagles took control and won 60-49.

Finishing games and playing in close contests is something this year’s group has learned.

“We didn’t have that many close games last year,” Ellsworth head coach Austin said. “This year we played a strong Orono team and came out on fire, same thing with Old Town. We came out hot and then they went ahead and we came back. Hopefully those will help us in the tournament.”

Junior Miles Palmer agreed that the close games the team won in the regular season will be advantages for Ellsworth in the tournament.

“It’s mental,” Palmer said. “I think the way we’ve played this year, we’ve had a lot more close games so when the time comes I think we’ll be ready.”

Heading into the state final last year, Palmer felt Ellsworth was “untouchable.” That all changed after the loss.

Ellsworth lost 1,000-point scorer Hunter Curtis to graduation and the team was effectively turned over to Mercier this winter.

Austin called Mercier one of the hardest workers he’s ever had.

“He’s very relentless,” Austin said. “When he misses a shot he follows the shot. When he came in his 3-point shot wasn’t there but from 15-feet and in he was lights out, so he’s worked on that. He also leads us in assists and rebounds. He does everything for us and is just a hard worker. Obviously he is very talented, too.”

Mercier leads Ellsworth in every counting stat this year and has already reached the 1,000-point mark in his career as a junior.

It’s not just Austin who notices how hard Mercier works. His teammates do, as well.

“Once we hit middle school, basketball became different for him,” Palmer said of Mercier. The two have been friends since they were 5 years old. “We all like basketball but Chance loves it. You can tell when a sport is different for someone. He’s put blood, sweat and tears into basketball every day and that’s his priority.”

Mercier understands that a lot is put on him, but always brings up how important his teammates are to his success.

Ellsworth’s Chance Mercier jumps over two Yarmouth players to get the ball in the net during the Class B Championship in the Cross Insurance Center, March 4, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

“I view my spot as being a leader and a great teammate,” Mercier said. “One guy can’t win a basketball game. I’m not going to score if they can’t get me the ball and they can’t score if I don’t get them the ball.”

His teammates have stepped up this season. Austin said he uses up to 12 players in a game and that anyone can step up.

Peter Keblinsky has become an effective center for the Eagles, while Eamon MacDonald has become a strong offensive weapon, trailing Mercier in points. The teamwork and depth of this year’s Ellsworth team is hopefully a winning recipe for the Eagles come tournament time.

“[Mercier] really wants to get that gold ball and I think every school would like to get that gold ball,” Austin said. “We’re shooting for that and obviously we want to win every game. So far, so good.”

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Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson is a native of Auburn, Maine, and graduate of Husson University and Edward Little High School. He enjoys sports, going on runs and video games.