The Orono boys basketball team remembered its blowout loss to Ellsworth last year in the Class B North final, and it wasn’t going to let it happen again this season.
As fate would have it, the Red Riots and Eagles met up again in the regional final a week ago, and a team effort vaulted Orono past that final hurdle.
Pierce Walston’s performance on Saturday in the regional final victory for Orono encapsulated the team’s growth.
“I don’t think there could be more evidence of it than down the stretch, after an excellent Ellsworth team works itself back into the game. One team is going to execute and get more of what they want and the team that does that will play another week,” Orono coach Ed Kohtala said.
“I don’t think myself, coach Austin, or anyone watching would have said Orono would get better shots and turn it over less and hold them off, and that’s what happened,” Kohtala added. “It was all mental toughness and maturity against the soundest and well-prepared basketball teams that you can play.”
Orono will take on Class B South champion Oceanside in the state title game at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Portland Expo. It’s among the four boys championship games that will take place early next week after weather forced the cancellation of Saturday’s schedule.
The Class D game between Southern Aroostook and Forest Hills will be played at 7:45 p.m. Monday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, while the Class AA game between Portland and South Portland will be held at the same time at the Cross Insurance Arena. The Class C game between Calais and Dirigo will be held at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
2023 tourney highlights
The Brewer boys basketball team faced Falmouth in the Class A finals on Friday, March 3.
For Orono, the team’s depth includes junior Ben Francis and sophomore Will Francis. Both played big roles on Saturday, with Will Francis guarding Ellsworth’s star player Chance Mercier all game.
Kohtala recalled a photo taken of Mercier in the Ellsworth game in which he’s rising up for a jump shot, and an unknown Orono defender has his hand in Mercier’s space.
“I didn’t have to ask who it was because where they were placed in the picture. That was something Will gave us,” Kohtala said. “He had never played himself to the point of fatigue that he did against Chance that day. He took himself to a place he had never been before, which was pretty amazing because we needed him to.”
Noah Schaff, Orono’s big post player, doesn’t get eye-popping counting stats but Kohtala said that his effort and physicality is what’s important to the team’s success. Senior Ellis Spaulding is in the somewhat the same boat. If his shot isn’t falling, he stays in the game because of his hard-nosed defense and rebounding ability.
The Red Riots gave it all in the regional final and has turned its sights on Oceanside in the Class B title game. Oceanside’s offense has certainly caught the attention of Orono.
“Any high school team in a 32-minute game that averages 80 points per game, you don’t have to dig a lot deeper than that,” Kohtala said. “You got a good team, you can get 80 sometimes, but when you start talking about high school teams that average 80, that’s a different animal.”
Regardless of the numbers that Oceanside has put up, the players are ready to go.
“I think they’re feeling good and the great thing about youth is you see the glass as half full,” Kohtala added. “The atmosphere and attitude has been tremendous.”
In Class C, Calais comes in with a deep team that’s ready to give defending C champs Dirigo a run at the title.
Jace Cook, a 1,000-point scorer and Bangor Daily News Most Valuable Player of the Class C North tournament, leads the Blue Devils in scoring and on the court. Cook scored 31 points in Calais’ semifinal victory over Fort Fairfield.
Dirigo’s Charlie Houghton hit the game-winning shot last year to win the Class C title over Dexter and returns for the Cougars ready to repeat. Houghton is a big-bodied forward who is athletic and can score from anywhere on the court, but Calais’ Jacob Sockabasin is primed to give Houghton a tough time defensively.
Sockabasin is a tall, lengthy forward who has a nose for rebounds. The Houghton and Sockabasin matchup will be one to watch and might decide the game.
Evan Gillespie, who joined Sockabasin and Cook on the BDN’s Class C North all-tourney team, is a Swiss Army knife of sorts who fills up a stat sheet well. He and the rest of Calais will have a tough time guarding the rest of Dirigo’s eight seniors, including Dakota Thompkins and Trent Holman.
The game will come down to the wire and could come down to who makes the final shot, just as the C title game did a year ago.
Southern Aroostook knows it has the target on its back this season as it entered the Class D North tournament as the top seed.
The Warriors got a good battle from Bangor Christian, winning 41-28 in the D North semifinals. In the regional final against Machias, Southern Aroostook found its shooting form and blew out the Bulldogs 78-46.
In the Machias game, Dylan Burpee made six 3-pointers and Drake Weston hit five to help the Warriors to their second D title game in a row. Burpee was named the MVP of the D North tournament by the BDN.
It’s a team attack from Southern Aroostook, with Burpee and Weston scoring from all over and Graham Siltz scoring in the post while also grabbing a lot of rebounds and, on the defensive end, being a brick wall under the hoop.
2023 tourney Mvps
Southern Aroostook will have to find a way to stop Mason Desjardins and D south champs Forest Hills in a rematch of last year’s D title game, which the Warriors won 82-61.
Forest Hills is paced by Desjardins, who scored 36 points in the loss last year and will continue to be a point of focus for the Warriors.
Last year’s win by Southern Aroostook snapped a 65-game winning streak by Forest Hills, and Monday’s game will be a close affair.
In Class AA, South Portland returns to the championship game after winning the title a year ago over against Oxford Hills. Portland reached the state title game this season after defeating Oxford Hills in the AA North final.
South Portland is without Owen Maloney (graduation) and J.P. Estrella (transfer), two important pieces to their title last year, but Jaelen Jackson has been having a great senior year and is leading the Red Riots to another championship opportunity.
Portland gained Remjio Wani from Deering this year and the Bulldogs have shown to be strong all season. Against Oxford Hills, Jeissey Khamis stepped up in the post and dominated down low to help knock off the top-seeded Vikings.