There is only one high school basketball team in Maine — boys or girls — that has won three state championships over the past four campaigns.
The Southern Aroostook girls even came close to making it four state titles in a row, losing to Greenville 42-38 in the 2020 final.
The Warriors are atop the Class D North standings again this season and are the favorites to represent the North in the state championship game yet again.
After posting a regular season record of 3-15 during the 2014-15 season, the Warriors went 98-10 in the following six seasons entering this campaign, including an 85-5 record over the previous five seasons with all five losses coming to Class C schools.
Southern Aroostook won state championships in 2018, 2019 and 2022. The team also had a strong COVID-19 season (2020-21) when there were no tournaments and schools played competitors in their own region.
Southern Aroostook went 15-1 that year and avenged its only loss with a win over Class B Presque Isle in the pod championship game.
“That was very big to our community. We beat a team with four or five times our enrollment,” said Southern Aroostook coach Cliff Urquhart. “The community treated it like we won a state championship. We had a parade with fire trucks. It was the highest peak we could have reached that season.”
Urquhart said “success breeds success,” and that has been a key to the team’s consistency.
Makaelyn Porter, who played on the 2018 and 2019 state championship teams, said Southern Aroostook has “very strong basketball community” and kids are introduced to the sport at an early age.
“The competition is tough especially when you get to middle school. You have to work your way up,” said Porter, a 1,000-point scorer at Southern Aroostook and a three-time Class D North Tournament Most Valuable Player. She is now a junior playing for the Husson University women’s basketball team.
Urquhart, a 38-year-old Eastport native whose first year as the head coach was the 2019-10 season, said he is fortunate to have players who come from basketball families.
“There are kids whose parents played in the basketball program. The kids know the game and the history of the program. They have probably watched old tournament games with their parents and heard stories and that gets them pretty excited,” Urquhart said.
He said he has been blessed with dedicated kids who “love to get out and play.”
That includes the summer program, which gets full participation.
“If I told them we were going to practice on the moon, they would try to find a way to get there,” Urquhart said of his players.
The trademark of the Warriors is their pressure defense. They suffocate opponents and force turnovers that lead to transition baskets.
“We worked more on defense than offense in practice,” Porter said of her time with the Warriors. “Our priority was to get up in people’s faces and pressure them. We would generate offense off our defense.”
“I’ve had some real good defensive teams,” Urquhart said. “Kids in The County pride themselves on toughness. They have to deal with real cold winters. Defense is a lot of toughness and that has come out in the teams we’ve had.”
In their last four state championship games, Southern Aroostook has held its opponents to an average of 27 points per game.
“The key to them is their on-ball pressure,” said Penobscot Valley of Howland coach Nate Case. “They are able to put real good pressure on the ball. They are aggressive and confident. They also have good timing when it comes to reaching in [and poking the ball away or stealing it].”
That leads to easy baskets off turnovers for the Warriors, Case added.
“Their kids are committed. They are willing to put the work in,” said Fort Fairfield coach Larry Gardner. “They are all fundamentally sound and very athletic.”
Gardner and Case said the Warriors always have talented guards who can shoot.
The current team has two 1,000-point scorers in Madison Russell and Cami Shields.
“They have four guards who can score 15 points a game and you don’t see that very much in girls basketball, let alone Class D,” Case said. “The guards also play great defense.”
He added that Southern Aroostook also always has a talented forward-center who can provide points and rebounds in the paint.
“All of our teams had good balance. Everybody fit a role,” said Porter, a three-year captain who began playing for the varsity team in eighth grade, similar to several other Warrior stars.
The high school players spend time working with youngsters in the recreation programs, helping fuel the feeder system.
Porter said they were role models and the kids wanted to emulate them and eventually play for the Warriors.
The players come from six different towns: Crystal, Dyer Brook, Island Falls, Merrill, Oakfield and Smyrna Mills. The students all attend the same school in Dyer Brook, grades K-12, which breeds familiarity.
“So you don’t have kids from six small towns meeting each other for the first time on the first day of high school. That’s important,” Urquhart said.
Porter said Urquhart deserves credit for his part in the Warriors’ success.
“He pushes you hard in practice. He’s a very good Xs and Os coach. He prepares us well for every game. You never go into a game blind. You know what you have to do to win,” Porter said.