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Road wins become the norm for Greater Houlton Christian Academy boys

HOULTON, Maine — “Have ball, will travel” could easily be the mantra for the Greater Houlton Christian Academy boys basketball team.

GHCA is one of the few basketball programs the state that does not have a gymnasium to call home, but that has not stopped the squad from stringing together a remarkable 12-2 record thus far on the season.

Head coach Matt Day, who served as an assistant last year but is in his first season as a varsity coach, said he immediately connected with the squad.

“They are such good kids and so receptive to coaching,” Day said. “If I ask them to  jump, they say, ‘How high, Coach?’”

All season long, the Eagles have embraced the underdog mentality and have been flying “under the radar” of many squads. As one of the smaller schools in Class D, that thinking is easy to understand. There are only 17 boys in grades 8-12 at GHCA, with 10 of those youths playing basketball. The total school enrollment is just 94 students in grades pre-kindergarten to 12.

“We have no home gym, so all of our games are on the road,” Day said. “We’re also such a small school.”

Isaac Potter, right, of Greater Houlton Christian Academy takes the ball strong to the hoop while guarded by Hodgdon’s Seth Tapley, left, and Dylan Jurson during a Jan. 28 game in Hodgdon.
(Joseph Cyr)

“We are proud our team’s integrity and steadfastness,” GHCA Headmaster Tom Zimmerman said. “Being without a home gym, they practice at the local armory, have few home games and travel great distances to play the sport they enjoy.”

As of Thursday, the Eagles ranked third in the Class D North standings, with just three games to go on their schedule. A trip directly to Bangor for the tournament is a certainty for the Eagles for the second straight year.

Last season, the team finished 12-5 and went to Bangor as the No. 4 seed, where they fell to No. 5 Schenck 54-30.

The Eagles feature a solid mixture of upperclassmen and younger players with seniors Cole Winslow and Isaac Potter; juniors Ethan Grant, Parker Brewer and Will Austin; sophomores Jeremy Stone, Joel Carmichael and Austin Winslow; freshman Silas Graham and eighth-grader Drew Duttweiler.

GHCA has used its size to their advantage in most games. Potter stands 6 feet, 4 inches, while Brewer is 6-3 and Austin is 6-2.

“Our expectation coming into the year was this was their time,” Day said. “They all put in so much time during the offseason.”

Many of the Eagles ran on their school’s cross-country squad in the fall to improve their conditioning for basketball.

The team finds being on the road is no problem. They practice at the National Guard Armory barracks as the GHCA gym is not big enough for the team to do full-court drills. The two “home” games on the Eagles schedule are played at neighboring Hodgdon Middle-High School. In years past, they played “home” games at the University of  Maine at Presque Isle.

For the two seniors on the club, Cole Winslow and Potter, travel played an even bigger role in their high school careers. Both played with East Grand as freshmen when GHCA did not have a team.

“I think with all the traveling it makes us mentally stronger,” Potter said. “Every night we have to go into an opponent’s gym and execute. We all get along really well and when we are on the floor nobody is selfish. It’s all about playing together as a team.”

Austin said last year’s loss in the quarterfinals has served as fuel for the club this year.

“We tried to forget about it (that loss), but we definitely want to do better down there this year,” he said. “The travel is tough, but it is kind of an advantage for us. We are not used to a home gym, so when we get to Bangor we will be ready.”

Although a first-time head coach, Day is no stranger to basketball. He graduated from Hodgdon High School in 2002, where he played varsity basketball, baseball and golf. He was part of 2002 squad that finished undefeated (18-0) during the regular season, but fell in the quarterfinals 67-56 to Calais.

Day said he still speaks regularly with his former high school coach, Rob Moran, particularly when he decided to make the leap into coaching.

“I learned a lot from Rob,” he said. “To this day I talk to him about basketball and carry some of his coaching traits in the way I coach these boys. We often get caught talking about memories from the years past. I look to him often for quick tips and suggestions on what he sees. We have a great relationship around basketball and outside. He was a great role model to look up to.”

Assisting with the Eagles is Sam Henderson, who actually coached the club from 2008-2012 before taking a few years off from coaching.

Greater Houlton Christian Academy coach Matt Day speaks to his team during a Tuesday, Jan. 29, practice at the Houlton National Guard Armory building.
(Joseph Cyr)

“My kids were really little, and my brother had just passed away, so I took a few years off,” Henderson said. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to coach, I just needed to take a break.”

Henderson eventually returned to coaching at the junior high level and actually coached several of the players on the Eagle roster. He bases much of his coaching philosophy on the style of Mike Krzyzewski, the head coach of Duke.

“Coach K promotes the fist concept in that everyone on the court is united in a fist,” Henderson said. “If you can bring five guys together and play as one, it doesn’t matter who does the scoring. This team has no egos, so that thinking has really worked.”

“I told the team from day one, I don’t care who scores the points,” Day added. “Our focus is on defense. If you are having a bad day offensively, play harder on defense. The parents also put so much work into these boys. They are at every road game, whether it is Van Buren or Ashland or Wisdom, they are there to support the team.”

The Eagles have three games remaining on their schedule — at Wisdom Friday, hosting Shead Saturday and at Van Buren Monday.

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