The Spruce Mountain High School boy’s basketball team runs drills in Jay on Monday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
JAY — The sound of basketballs pounding hardwood and rattling rims rang out across the state for the first day of winter sports practice Monday, and no more so than inside the perpetually cacophonous gym at Spruce Mountain High School, aka “The Nest.”
The Phoenix tipped off the season with over 30 boys at mid-afternoon tryouts and over 30 girls at their early evening session. Back in the Mountain Valley Conference after a three-year stint in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference, Spruce Mountain began preparations for the 2017-18 season, which opens Dec. 8 against Mt. Abram.
“There’s no doubt in my mind when we start, it’s going to be high-intensity with a lot of enthusiasm,” Spruce Mountain boys’ coach Scott Bessey said before practice.
Monday was the culmination of a busy offseason for the Phoenix and many other players around the state. Preparations for the season began well before the official first day of winter practices with activities such as summer basketball and weight-lifting.
It’s also a time for teams to make the crucial transition of team leadership. Spruce Mountain, which graduated five seniors from last year’s 16-5 campaign, is in good hands with a quartet of seniors — Jordan Daigle, Brett Frey, Nick Lombardi and Mason Shink.
“It started in the summer leagues. We knew we needed to become leaders then,” Frey said.
“We’ve always tried to keep everyone as involved as much as possible during the summer and the fall,” Daigle said, “because at this level, if you just start to become a basketball team a week or two before tryouts, you’re going to have a long winter.”
Spruce Mountain’s girls’ team has less players to replace, having graduated just two seniors from a team that finished 6-12 last year. But coach Zach Keene does have a huge scoring void to fill with the graduation of 1,0o0-point scorer Alex Bessey.
“Our style will be a little different this year,” Keene said. “I won’t have to worry about protecting Alex (from foul trouble) like last year.”
Despite the large number of participants, Bessey said returning players could expect tryouts to feel like a normal practice as the Phoenix begin their quest to improve upon last year’s Class B South semifinal berth.
“They know exactly what’s going to happen today. They know we’re going to go 100 miles-an-hour,” Bessey said. “We play an exhibition Friday night and a round-robin Saturday against two teams. Even though it’s a tryout, there are probably a half-dozen kids that are really going to come to play today and (Tuesday) to see if they’re going to be able to help us on a daily basis.”
“I’m not really looking for how well they can handle the ball or how well they can shoot it,” he added. “I’m looking to see how well they can keep up with the pace of practice.”
In addition to the usual roster turnover, Spruce is undergoing a couple of other changes to its identity.
Most notable is the return to the MVC, which means the Class B Phoenix will be playing many more Class C schools than it did in the B-dominated KVAC.
“I’m excited about it. It’s all of the places that I played, so I like that,” said Keene, a Livermore Falls High School graduate. “The travel is less. I think it brings back more of the natural rivalries that I like. It’s less ‘B’ schools, which can hurt come tournament time. I know the girls are excited about it. It’s all of the teams they played growing up.”
Both Keene and Bessey said one of their major coaching points this season is for the Phoenix to maintain their intensity even if playing against smaller schools means more lopsided games.
“It’s definitely strange. We’ve gotten used to the Winslows, the Gardiners, the Lincoln Academys and the grinding games,” he said. “I’m not taking anything away from some of these MVC teams, but we’re not going to change. We’re going to prepare the same exact way as we have the last few years and play the exact same way, regardless of our opponent.”
The Phoenix will also have to adopt a new slogan to rally around after administration banned the slogan they’ve used since Bessey became head coach four years ago — P.O.D. (Pressure Overwhelm Demoralize).
Bessey created the slogan a decade ago as an assistant coach with a dominant Cheverus program to describe the high-intensity style of play he coaches.
The players are disappointed they can’t keep the rallying cry, but promise it won’t affect their team’s identity or mission.
“It’s been that way since we came to high school. It doesn’t just leave your mind when someone decides you can’t say it anymore,” Shink said.
“Even if we can’t say P.O.D. and have it on our stuff, it doesn’t mean we won’t be able to do it anymore,” Lombardi said. “I mean, that’s still what we’re trying to achieve every time we go out on the court.”
Spruce Mountain boys’ coach Scott Bessey runs practice during the first day of basketball practice in Jay on Monday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)