When the Ellsworth High School girls basketball team beat archrival Mount Desert Island in their Class B North quarterfinal game, the weight of the world was lifted off the shoulders of Ellsworth coach Andy Pooler.
Pooler, who is in his 12th season as the head coach at Ellsworth, had never won a quarterfinal game. The third-seeded Eagles beat the sixth-seeded Trojans 68-33 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Feb. 17.
In fact, the last time Ellsworth won a quarterfinal game was 1994.
Pooler’s teams won five preliminary round games but couldn’t win that next game.
“It was awesome. It was a huge deal,” said Pooler, whose Eagles then went on to beat No. 2 Caribou 71-51 in the semifinals and top seed and previously undefeated Old Town 59-52 in the championship game to win its first regional title since 1992.
“This hasn’t sunk in yet,” said the 35-year-old Pooler, whose 18-3 Eagles will take on B South champion Spruce Mountain from Jay (20-1) in Saturday’s 1 p.m. state title game at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
Class B North title
Pooler maintains that their third victory of the season over Mount Desert Island, which had won the three meetings with Ellsworth last season, was very important.
“We got over the hump. We could breathe a little bit. Now we knew anything could happen. Everything went right so we knew we had a shot to win the whole thing,” Pooler said.
Guard Morgan Clifford, the team’s only senior, agreed.
“Once we won that [MDI] game, the tension was released,” said Clifford, one of the co-captains along with junior guard Megan Jordan.
“Once we got that first win, we figured, ‘Let’s go take the whole thing,’” Jordan said.
Jordan said they had a talented team last season, but it was a young team.
“A lot of girls put in a ton of work during the summer. And we matured. We stepped it up,” Jordan said. “We knew we could do it. We just had to put the work in.”
Ellsworth lost a pair of three-point games to Caribou during the regular season and also lost by three to Old Town in their only meeting.
“When we lost at Caribou, it was one of the best things to happen to us,” Pooler said. “We had to grow up. We had to make adjustments and go back to doing what we do well: play hard defense and take as many shots as we could.”
“We played terrible at Caribou,” Clifford said. “We didn’t play as a team at all. We played very selfish basketball instead of team basketball.”
She said that after the game members of the team “screwed our heads on right” and realized that they needed to rely on each other instead of trying to do it all themselves.
She also said the two losses to Caribou supplied them with extra incentive for the tournament game against the Vikings.
“It was a revenge game,” Clifford said.
The youthful Eagles, led by sophomores Abby Radel and Grace Jaffray, received valuable contributions from a number of players during the regular season and the tournament.
“One of the biggest parts (of our success) is how deep our bench is. It’s deeper than any other team in our league,” Jordan said.
Freshman guard Lizzie Boles came off the bench and scored 36 points in three tournament games, including 18 against Caribou and 10 against Old Town. Sophomore forward Addison Atherton produced 18 points off the bench and also had seven rebounds against Caribou.
Starting sophomore guard Abby Radel was the tournament’s Most Valuable Player thanks to her 58 points in the three games for a 19.3 points per game average. She was joined on the all-tourney team by sophomore forward Grace Jaffray, who had 41 points and 28 rebounds in the tourney.
Jaffray (19.3 ppg) and Radel (12.1 ppg) were the top scorers during the regular season but four more girls averaged at least 5.7 ppg in Atherton (7.3), Boles (6.7), Clifford (6.6) and Lily Bean (5.7).
“We know we can put any five on the floor and get something done and that’s massive,” Jordan said.
Jaffray was the leading rebounder (8.7 rpg) but there were five others averaging at least three rebounds a game in Atherton (4.7), Bean (4.3), Jordan (3.6), Radel (3.4) and Clifford (3.3). Jaffray (3.6) and Boles (2.8) led in steals and Boles (3.3) and Bean (3.2) were tops in assists.
They shot an impressive 50.6 percent from the floor.
The Ellsworth girls will be looking for their first ever state championship on Saturday.
“You want to be peaking at the right time and I’d say we’re peaking at the right time,” Pooler said. “The girls have done an unbelievable job at not backing down during the big moments at the tournament. To beat the two teams in the tournament that beat them in the regular season is a testament to those girls and how motivated they are. To knock off the two best teams in the league in front of big crowds and have a shot to win a gold ball is special.”