The Hot Corner: Knights’ journey like no other

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PORTLAND — Counting the number of Maine high school basketball teams who have knocked off the third, second and first seeds consecutively to win a regional championship doesn’t require many fingers.

Which is good, because if you follow the Poland Regional High School boys with even a modicum of passion, you lack nails.

I’m comfortable saying that no other team in history has rallied from a 19-point deficit and blown all but a bucket’s worth of an 11-point lead in the same title game.

That’s what Poland did Saturday at Cumberland County Civic Center, all with a panache that officially makes them my favorite team in 25 years of cranking out celebratory columns and penning post-mortems.

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To call the Knights the most unlikely regional champion I’ve ever seen sounds too much like a backhanded compliment. Class B West champion Poland, 63-59 conqueror of Greely in the Game That Tops Them All, is a really, really good basketball team.

They might not even realize how great they can be, which makes them all parts fun, agonizing, frustrating and impossible not to love.

“I always knew we had the ability. I always knew we had the talent,” said senior guard C.J. Martin, who scored 26 points in the final to sew up MVP honors. “In the final three weeks of the season we really came around with our mental toughness. Now that it’s happened, I keep pinching myself.”

Poland’s confidence does one of those side-to-side, defensive practice drills on the continuum from fragile to assassin-like, and back again.

There were moments in Saturday’s first quarter, many of them, when Poland didn’t appear to belong on the court with Greely any more than five random fat guys from the press-and-committee table. Then there were stretches of the second, third and fourth periods when you watched the ball fly off the fingers of Martin, or Tyler Michaud, and knew with all the certainty of taxes and gravity that it was going to end with a splash and a deafening roar.

“It’s just a reflection of these kids,” Poland coach Tyler Tracy said. “Our community has been going through this process at the same time together. There’s obvious things to you and I that aren’t obvious to my guys because they’ve never been through this, and it’s been a lot of fun going through this for the first time.”

Tracy took over this program four years ago, just as Poland seniors Martin, Michaud, Josh Gary, Shawn Murphy, Billy Bickford, Daniel Kuklinski and Coady Lagasse were beginning to roam the halls as wide-eyed freshmen.

He was an educational technician and a phys-ed teacher in Monmouth, in his mid-20s. His coaching experience was limited to a year or two under former University of Maine at Farmington teammate Travis Magnusson at Livermore Falls.

Poland was a school known mostly for cheerleading and baseball at the time, a decade into its existence. They had been to one boys’ basketball quarterfinal and lost big. In the land of Falmouth, Greely, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, the idea of the Knights winning a regional or state title anytime soon was ridiculous as … well … digging out of a first-quarter canyon against a top seed that measured 6-7, 6-4 and 6-4 along the baseline.

“We believe in him. He’s a big reason why we’re here,” Martin said of his coach. “He preached mental toughness to us. He pushed us and pushed us until we were able to come back from down 19 to the No. 1 seed with a bunch of all-conference players.”

By comparison to Greely and its AAU-molded, chiseled cast, Poland counters with kids who look like they just walked out of the “Hoosiers” script.

There’s sticky-fingered junior Derek Michaud, whom the program says has grown to 5-foot-7. I’m convinced that he was standing on Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls’ annual reports at the time.

And John Fossett, a sophomore who wears No. 21 even though he’s listed as No. 42 in the program. Make the requisite joke about him being half the man he used to be, if you wish, but he is surely twice the player Greely realized he was, collecting 10 points and six rebounds off the bench on the biggest stage of his life.

And Gary and Murphy, neither of whom thought for more than a nanosecond about throwing their lean mass in front of 6-foot-7, 240-if-he’s-an ounce Michael McDevitt to draw offensive fouls and get the 1,000-point scorer out of the game.

“This has been such a team effort the whole time,” Martin said. “It seems like someone new delivers every night. To win this, I’m still in disbelief.”

Nothing about this journey makes sense.

Regional champions don’t lose eight games. Poland did.

“At the beginning of the year, our schedule was very difficult. We had high expectations for ourselves, and we got punched in the mouth and we let it really affect us, mentally and emotionally,” Tracy said. “We got on a downward slide, and it took quite a while to get our confidence back and play at the level we knew we were capable of.”

Team don’t let leads of 15, 13 and 11 points dip to one or two and live to tell about it at playoff time. Poland pulled that stunt and survived. Three times.

“All tournament we’ve done that. I think our parents are pretty mad at us,” Martin quipped. “We’re keeping their blood pressure up.”

Pack the pills and prepare to cut back on the caffeine, good folks of RSU 16.

Your team has earned the right to test your cardiovascular conditioning one more time — against another No. 6 seed, Old Town, at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Friday night.

Tracy will take his chances with this gang. I know I would.

“This senior class has been very special. I don’t know if I’ve been more afraid of losing them and not being able to go to practice with them or losing in general,” Tracy said. “It’s a great group. They’re great leaders. Great role models. For four years they’ve set the tone. I can remember that first practice, that first day. Three of these seniors were on varsity as freshmen. They’ve established a culture here that we have a lot of pride in.”

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is koakes@sunjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.

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