It was a great year for Penobscot Bay basketball teams.
Both the North Haven and Vinalhaven girls’ teams made the quarter finals of the Maine Principals’ Association Western Maine Class D tournament, while the Vinalhaven boys went as far as the semifinals. The annual competition is held every February.
One might wonder how island schools, the smallest of the small schools, are able to compete with teams from much larger mainland schools. After all, island schools compete against larger school that draw from bigger pools of athletes and have to cope with the added challenge of ferry rides, long drives and overnight stays.
This was the first time in seven years that the North Haven girls made it to Augusta. Before 2001, they hadn’t made it since 1987, according to Head Coach Roman Cooper.
There are 28 students in North Haven High School. North Haven competes against some schools with seven times as many students. When it comes to putting together a basketball team, “you take what you get,” said Cooper. “We never have to have try-outs. [Making it to Augusta] shows how hard kids work, coming from such a small school.”
Last year the Vinalhaven girls reached the semifinals of the tournament. Previous to that it had been 22 years since the Vikings had made it that far. This year “we expected to make it further than the quarter-finals,” said Vinalhaven girls Head Coach Lindsay Davis. “We ended up as the fourth seed going into the tournament. We had hoped to go in as the three spot and have an easier first round,” she said.
As for the Vinalhaven boys’ team, this was the first time they saw tournament action since 2003, or 2004, according to Head Coach Matt Slivinsky, and the first time they won a tournament game “in about 15 years,” he said. “It was a really good thing for everybody,” he said, though he admitted, “I would have liked to have won one more and make it to the finals because I think [the boys] had the talent.”
For those unfamiliar with island sports, there are a lot of demands made of island athletes that are not required from mainland athletes. For away games, island schools have additional travel time on ferries that often requires teams to leave their islands as early as 10:30 am for a late afternoon or evening game, and they usually don’t make it home the same night.
Therefore, island students miss much more school for away games than mainland teams. In addition, because of the extra travel time, island schools play double headers every weekend.
Although this can be considered a hardship, Davis counts it as a benefit. “We are much more adaptable to different situations that may come up,” she said. “Most schools don’t play a Friday night and Saturday morning game, so we have an edge there. It sometimes helps during tournament time since class D always gets the morning sessions.” Slivinsky agreed. “It makes them stronger in away,” he said, “because they have to be resilient. They know they have to get stuff done,” such as missed schoolwork.
Cooper also sees other advantages to being an island team. “The kids hate the isolation,” he said, “but it can be a benefit for the coach. We aren’t inundated with lots of external distractions like movies and shopping malls.” In addition, “there is really quite a personal feel to what they are accomplishing,” he continued. “Out here that is a real benefit. Everyone seems to be with you, a part of you,” he said, in reference to the support shown by island fans.
All three coaches admit there are disadvantages to being an island team. “I think that being isolated you don’t have the numbers, that’s the biggest thing,” said Cooper. “Some kids only play the sport when it’s time to play it. It’s hard getting kids who want to keep the interest up all year. Once in a while you have kids that are driven. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had kids like that the last couple of years.”
Slivinsky also cited small school size as an island disadvantage, noting that Vinalhaven High School’s enrollment is one-third or less than that of the bigger Western Class D teams, such as Buckfield and Richmond.
Despite any hardships, it is obvious that islanders can compete with mainland teams. In terms of resources, Slivinsky feels “our gym is about the best we play in,” which goes a long way toward team preparedness and pride.
In terms of talent, Slivinsky acknowledged there is a lot of talent on his team. Davis and Cooper feel the same. “Right now Buckfield is the biggest team in the conference,” said Davis. “They are a very strong competitor. We matched up well this year and lost two close games. They are losing some key seniors, so next year we hope to take two games from them.”