In this 2017 photo, Husson University women's basketball coach Kissy Walker calls out a play during a recent game at Newman Gym in Bangor. Credit: Courtesy of Glendon Rand

Husson University women’s basketball coach Kissy Walker didn’t know much about Central Aroostook High School of Mars Hill junior guard Maci Beals before the 2020 Class C North high school basketball tournament at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Walker said when players from small, rural communities don’t play AAU or travel basketball, “you don’t get to see somebody like that much.”

During that tournament, Beals averaged 14.7 points per game in leading her sixth-seeded Panthers to wins over the top three seeds in the tourney, and she received the Bangor Daily News’ Owen Osborne Tournament Most Valuable Player award.

She followed that up with a 20-point performance to lead the Panthers past Winthrop 67-61 in the state championship game.

“I remember saying to myself ‘I’ve got to get that kid,’” said Walker.

She did just that. Beals is a sophomore guard on the Husson team this season.

The Maine high school basketball tournaments are important to college recruiters. Players are tested against good teams in front of large, passionate crowds in win-or-go-home scenarios.

“I put a lot of value in watching a recruit in a tournament atmosphere,” said Husson University men’s coach Warren Caruso. “There is added pressure in those moments so you get to see how they react and how they play.”

Husson University head coach Warren Caruso yells instructions to his team during a 2017 basketball game against Thomas College. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

St. Joseph’s College of Windham women’s basketball coach Mike McDevitt said there is even value in seeing a recruit having a sub-par performance.

“You get to see how they handle adversity and disappointment,” McDevitt said. “How they handle adversity can indicate how successful they are going to be. … The stakes are higher so you need to see how they deal with pressure situations.”

College coaches will tell you that a player’s character is just as important as their talent.

If you have a talented player who isn’t necessarily a good person, that will create a tense locker room atmosphere that can be problematic and lead to underachievement by the players and the team.

“You can tell a lot by how the player interacts with their teammates,” said University of Maine Presque Isle men’s basketball coach Dan Kane. “And then you can flip it around and see how their teammates react to them.”

University of Maine at Presque Isle men’s basketball coach Dan Kane talks to his team in March 2022. Credit: Contributed photo

How they treat their coaches and referees are also monitored.

Walker said she has recruited players she was excited to land only to see them display a poor attitude in that setting.

“When you see that kind of behavior at the tournament, it makes you think twice,” Walker said. “They have to be a good fit for your program. Team chemistry is so important. That’s a big priority.”

She added that she’s had teams that weren’t as talented as others but were successful because of their great chemistry.

Walker doesn’t rule out a recruit for an isolated performance because she knows how competitive players are and how they can act out in the heat of the moment.

So she will do her homework to make sure it was a rare instance and not common behavior.

“I believe in second chances,” Walker said.

The beauty of the tournaments for the college coaches is that they can watch a bunch of games in a day. It isn’t easy for them to get to a high school regular season game because they’re coaching their own teams.

“It’s always great to have a lot of talent in one place for multiple games and to watch a recruit play on the biggest stage,” said first-year University of Maine men’s basketball coach Chris Markwood.

McDevitt said in-state college coaches are “pretty lucky” because of the passion for high school basketball in Maine.

“High school basketball is still pretty popular so, on a lot of nights, regular season games have a pretty good atmosphere and a pretty competitive situation,” McDevitt said.

Central Aroostook High School’s Maci Beals takes a shot in the Maine Class C Girls championship basketball game at the Augusta Civic Center on Feb. 29, 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“That’s not always the case in other states. Maine players get exposed to more big-game atmospheres than players in other states.”

Caruso, who played at Bangor High School, said the tournaments are special.

“The bands, cheerleaders, a central location. I don’t know of any other state that does it the way Maine does it,” Caruso said.

The coaches said they have often gone to a tournament game to watch one particular player only to have another one catch their eye. And there have been times they would just be watching the games to see if any player would stand out, as was the case for Walker with Beals.

The tournaments are not quite as important as they were several years ago because of the growth of AAU and travel team basketball, the coaches said, which enables them to see players in games and showcases in the summer.

McDevitt said the high school tournaments are “a piece of the recruiting process but not a be-all-end-all.”

The coaches are unanimous on their love of the tournament. Many have played in them and coached in them before moving on to the college level.

“I remember when I played at Central High (in Corinth). When we came out for warmups, I felt like I could jump 12 feet high,” Kane recalled. “It was a special experience.”

“I’ve been going to the tournament for 40 years now,” Caruso said. “I don’t know what it would be like to not attend.”