Spruce Mountain boys’ basketball coach Chris Bessey is just fine with the statewide attention bestowed upon his near-neighbors from Dirigo.
Press clippings and Internet chatter about the undefeated Cougars have permitted the Phoenix to fly under the ubiquitous radar. It also has allowed Bessey to play the disrespect card with his team while keeping a straight face.
And it’s usually tough to get away with either one of those things when you’re 16-1.
“I think we’re about where we thought we’d be in terms of wins and losses,” Bessey said. “We’d like to show more consistency in games, but I think most coaches would say that. Dirigo is the only one that’s really been a one-possession game.”
Spruce swapped haymakers with Dirigo all evening before falling 57-53 on Jan. 3 in Dixfield, arguably gaining as much acclaim from the loss as any one-sided win.
It made the case that if Dirigo (16-0) is one of the best teams in the state, regardless of class — and that seems to be the consensus — then Spruce at least belongs in the conversation.
Not bad for a team whose players were pitted in all the requisite pushing, shoving and jawing of the traditional Livermore Falls-Jay rivalry just one year ago.
“It’s nice to have five senior starters,” Bessey said. “Even though most of them have never really been in a playoff game, if you watch all the tournaments over the years, the teams that have the seniors are the ones who usually win it.”
Four Phoenix starters average between 11 and 14 points per game. Jake Bessey, Zach Bonnevie, James Barker and Nate Shink all started for Jay in 2010-11.
Bessey (14 ppg) and Bonnevie (12 ppg) are in their third year as a starting backcourt. Jay missed the playoffs by a single Heal Point position in their freshman, sophomore and junior years.
“That’s pretty good balance,” Chris Bessey said. “And I think James and Nate (both 6-foot-2, both averaging 11 points) play bigger than they are.”
It’s the first time Chris Bessey has coached his only son at the varsity level. Jake has responded with a career year as a scorer and playmaker.
“I realize that other kids go home and don’t have to talk about the game. Well, maybe with their parents, but not their coach,” said Chris. “Once we leave the gym I try not to bring up basketball.”
The lone starter from Livermore Falls, Ben Keene, has been hobbled by back spasms of late.
Trevin Dunlop and Pat Ryan have played key minutes off the bench.
A retooled MVC schedule — with Carrabec dropping its varsity program and Georges Valley, Jay and Livermore Falls all affected by consolidation — led to an unprecedented feat.
Spruce Mountain became the first school ever to defeat Mountain Valley three times in a single season. The Phoenix beat the Falcons by margins of 11 (twice) and 17.
“I thought the last one (Monday) was a good win,” Bessey said. “We were in control pretty much the entire game.”
The merger and the move to Class B mean that Spruce will play its tournament games in Portland, not the Augusta Civic Center with which its fans and players are so familiar.
Bessey delivered a preemptive strike against any culture shock by having his team play Class A power Deering at the Exposition Building in a holiday tournament.
“We played pretty well considering that eight of our 12 players had never even set foot in the Expo, not even for a Red Claws game,” said Bessey. “They didn’t even know where the building was. I had to tell them it was next door to where the Sea Dogs play.”
The budding rivalry between Spruce Mountain and Dirigo won’t benefit from a playoff showdown for all the marbles. The Phoenix rank No. 2 in Western B, while the Cougars have clinched the top seed in Western C.
But two upcoming battles between the two will draw plenty of attention. The teams meet Wednesday on Spruce’s Senior Night at the Phoenix Dome. They also will square off for the MVC championship in Augusta on Monday, Feb. 13.
“That’s the best preparation either one of us could want for the tournament,” Bessey said. “There’s no pressure on us. They’re the ones who are undefeated and considered a favorite to win the state championship.”
If you’re wondering, for its part, Dirigo isn’t backpedaling from that pressure.
“I’m not familiar with the history, but our kids believe Dirigo has never had an undefeated (regular) season,” Cougars coach Travis Magnusson said. “So that’s in the back of their minds.”
Dirigo’s 17-1 mark in 2009 was the Cougars’ closest brush with perfection.
Two rivals get the last crack at knocking them off. Two nights before its trip to Spruce, Dirigo will host Mountain Valley. The Cougars beat the Falcons by eight points in December and a single marker in January.
“I think Spruce Mountain is one of the top 10 teams in the state. We’re going to be tested in both of those games and hopefully keep it going,” Magnusson said. “We’ve got to keep up our energy.”
Magnusson has his own household bragging rights to think about, as well.
His wife, Karen, is coach of the Cony girls. They’re 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in Eastern Class A.
Bouncing his way
Jordan Hersom is on his way to another milestone, one that is almost assuredly the rarest of all his senior year athletic accomplishments.
Leavitt’s star is 34 rebounds away from the 1,000th of his career. With three regular-season games and at least one playoff contest remaining, Hersom will shatter that ceiling if he pulls down anywhere near his career (12) or season (16) averages.
The 6-foot-3 senior crossed the 1,000 point threshold two weeks ago.
“I wonder how many people have actually accomplished this,” Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway said. “His will to get the ball is just flat out more than the guy next to him. He has a (Dennis) Rodman-esque knack for knowing where it will come off the rim. He’s got ups (leaping ability). And one of the few of a dying breed. Most of his time is spent in the paint, not floating around the 3-point line.”
Hathaway also coached Hersom in football, where he quarterbacked Leavitt to its third straight Eastern Class B title and won the Fitzpatrick Trophy as Maine’s outstanding senior player.
“Imagine a senior year where you rush for 1,000 yards, pass for 1,000, get your 1.000th point and 1,000th rebound,” Hathaway said.