POLAND — Wait, you’re surprised by Poland Regional High School’s amusement park-quality ride to a Class B West boys’ basketball championship and journey to the state final?
Seven Knights seniors are still trying to figure out how it didn’t happen two years ago.
“My sophomore year we had a chance to compete for a state championship,” guard C.J. Martin said. “Then we had a bunch of injuries to key players that really hurt our progress, and because of that we had a tough draw with Falmouth who was undefeated, and we gave them a great game at the (Portland) Expo but we couldn’t pull it out.”
Poland lost that game to Falmouth by eight points, which in retrospect seemed like a great reason to storm the court in celebration compared to the stigma of a 90-52 loss to the Yachtsmen early this winter.
Yarmouth, Falmouth and Greely beat Poland in succession by a staggering total of 89 points, in fact, dropping the Knights to 1-4. Expectations entering the season had been higher than the gymnasium ceiling, and Poland felt itself buckling under the weight.
“These guys want to win so badly, and they’ve put so much in, and they’ve tried so hard that when things went bad early, we didn’t respond well. A lot of the kids put a lot of pressure on themselves and they didn’t play to their capabilities because of that,” Poland coach Tyler Tracy. “And then finally at the end it was like, ‘You all need each other.’ We are a very good team when we play together and play within ourselves and play within our roles.”
That soul-searching and desperation has produced the stuff of miracles. It didn’t follow their ambitious timetable, but the Knights are playing for a Gold Ball.
Poland (13-8) takes a seven-game winning streak into Friday night’s showdown with Old Town (17-5) at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. By knocking off Spruce Mountain, Morse and Greely in the playoffs, the Knights became only the eighth boys’ team since 1960 to knock off the top three seeds in any region.
“We always knew we could be a great team and were a great team,” senior forward Josh Gary said. “We just needed to play with consistency the whole game, both offense and defense together, and at the beginning of the year we weren’t getting it done.”
In addition to fighting for space in a traditionally brutal conference, Poland was battling 15 years of ignominious history.
Prior to the four-game winning streak to end this regular campaign, that star-crossed 2012 team, at 11-9, enjoyed the Knights’ only winning season ever. Poland had won three tournament games — all in the preliminary round, never nudging past the quarterfinals — coming into this February.
“We’ve talked a lot about how you play so much throughout your life, and then you only get 18 games for the opportunity to play 32 minutes,” Tracy said. “And if you play well those 32 minutes and you’re lucky, you get to play another 32 minutes. That’s what we’ve been doing. ‘Let’s keep earning it,’ and here we are. We can’t earn any more minutes. This is it.”
Even those four-quarter windows featured more swings of emotion than any soap opera.
Poland gave away most of a double-digit lead in each round of the Class B playoffs. Junior Alan Young erupted for 25 points and Martin added 20 to outlast Spruce Mountain, 77-69, in the quarterfinals.
The next round saw Morse finish the game on a 12-0 run before Tyler Michaud’s steal preserved a 45-44 victory.
And the regional final, a 63-59 upset of Greely, will occupy a place in Maine hardwood lore until the end of the time. Poland trailed 11-0 and 23-4 out of the starting block, then played the game to Villanova-versus-Georgetown perfection and tore open an 11-point lead with a minute to go, only to watch a flurry of 3-pointers nearly steal it away.
“Our four years we kind of feel like we’ve experienced it all,” Martin said.
The seniors — Martin, Gary and Michaud are joined by Billy Bickford, Shawn Murphy, Coady Lagasse and Daniel Kuklinski — have won 35 games in their four years. That’s a record for any group to go through the Poland program,
They’ve also lost 42. The Knights were 4-14 and missed the tournament altogether in 2013. Five defeats this season were by single digits.
“Early in the year it just felt like there were a couple of pieces that weren’t falling into place, and they weren’t consistent pieces,” said Tracy, who took over the program when the current seniors were freshmen. “One game we would do something really well and do something poorly. The next game it would be the opposite. You knew it was there. You knew the capability was there, but it wasn’t until the very end when it all fell together.”
As those pieces fell into place, so has the Knights’ fan base.
Athletics have never been a major point of emphasis in Poland. The cheerleading program has been a state champion. Baseball went to a regional final not long ago. Track and field has tasted success. Soccer is growing.
But this week, the school is hooping it up.
“Just walking the hallways, you have teachers come up and talk about the game,” Gary said. “Some of them admit they barely ever pay attention to sports, but now that this is going on everybody seems to come together. This is a great thing not only for the school but the community as a whole.”
“I think we’re all experiencing everyone reaching out to us and saying, ‘Great job.’ It means a lot to the community,” Martin added. “I don’t think any of us realized what it would mean to the community, this being Poland’s first championship run in just about any sport.”
Whether it was seven games, two seasons or a decade-and-a-half in the making, the hardest part for Poland’s seniors and the coach who guided them from dreamers into doers is accepting that it’s almost over.
“I’m trying to really enjoy this week, especially practice, because I don’t know a practice without these seniors,” Tracy said. “They’ve been unbelievable, and I want to enjoy every moment I have left with them. I know they want to enjoy each other, too.”