Southern Aroostook basketball players progress from awestruck 8th-graders to two-time state champs
That is particularly true if you are a 13-year-old eighth-grader from a small school in Aroostook County who happens to be good enough to start for her high school team.
Welcome to the world of juniors Makaelyn Porter and Sydney Brewer, who helped lead Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook to its second straight Class D championship Saturday.
It is the first time a Southern Aroostook team has won back-to-back basketball championships.
When Porter and Brewer played in their first tournament game, a 38-32 overtime win over Wisdom of St. Agatha in 2016, they were on a team made up entirely of freshmen and eighth-graders.
“Going to the Cross Center the first time was so scary,” Porter said. “We didn’t have any senior leaders to look up to. We were all experiencing it for the first time.
“We were all star-struck,” Porter said of the large crowd, the media and the lights.
Under Maine Principals’ Association eligibility rules, eighth-graders are only allowed to play varsity high school sports at schools which have 60 or fewer boys or girls in grades 9-12. Southern Aroostook’s enrollment is 105.
“It was really nerve-wracking,” Brewer said. “None of us had been there before. We were playing in front of thousands of people.”
The Warriors adapted nicely to the surroundings and the atmosphere.
After having to recruit players to put together a six-player roster for 2014-15, coach Cliff Urquhart’s 2015-16 team — with all freshmen and eighth-graders — earned the No. 1 seed before losing to Central Aroostook of Mars Hill in the semifinals.
“They were very talented but very raw in the sense that they had no experience. Everything was a learning experience. Everything was new,” Urquhart said. “I knew there was a lot of potential, but I had no idea we would be as successful as we have been the past couple of years.”
Since the 2016 semifinal loss, Southern Aroostook has won nine of its past 10 games in Bangor, including Saturday’s 55-30 victory over Greenville.
“It’s my favorite place to play. I love the people, the lights, the atmosphere,” she said.
Brewer pointed out that if the team returns to the Cross Center next season, it will be the fifth season playing there for herself and Porter.
“I don’t know if there are any other kids who have done that. That would be pretty cool for me and Makaelyn to get that opportunity,” Brewer said.
The Warriors have exhibited a steady progression on the way to the pinnacle of Class D basketball. After reaching the semifinals in 2016, they lost 32-29 to Shead of Eastport in the regional championship game.
Brewer said that loss provided them with extra incentive and motivation.
“We didn’t want that to ever happen again,” Brewer said.
Southern Aroostook won its first state championship in 23 years last season with a 54-37 victory over defending state champ Vinalhaven, which had a 33-game winning streak.
The Warriors have won with scoring balance and relentless pressure defense that has produced transition layups off turnovers. Four of their five starters had at least one double-figure scoring game in the playoffs.
Brewer led the team 59 points combined in the four victories and Porter was next with 57. Seniors Kylie Vining and Kassidy Mathers also had at least one double-figure game.
The other starter, sophomore center Kacy Daggett, helped control the boards and chipped in with some important points.
“We’re extremely balanced. We’re hard to game-plan against,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart said the team’s basketball IQ has skyrocketed, and the team has developed tremendous chemistry.
“Their work ethic is something I hadn’t seen before,” Urquhart said. “And they’re best friends. They get along extremely well. Chemistry is so underrated and undervalued.”
Most of the girls also play soccer and softball so they have been together year-round.
Porter and Brewer said winning the first state title was amazing but this one was extremely rewarding because they had a target on their backs as the defending state champions.
Vining, Mathers, Katelyn Slauenwhite and Madison Cummings will be the first graduating class from the basketball team since 2015.
“To play their last game with them was a really special moment,” Porter said.
With Porter, Brewer, Daggett and productive eighth-grader Madison Russell returning, the Warriors will be one of the favorites again next season.
This story was corrected on March 6 at 10:03 a.m. to reflect that the Maine Principals’ Association cutoff for allowing eighth-graders to participate in sports is 60 students or fewer in a particular gender.
This article originally appeared on www.bangordailynews.com.