In three regular seasons, the Phoenix have one loss, and have gone 18-0 in each of the past two years.
Despite dominating its own conference, the Phoenix have found it to be tough sledding when the Western B tourney has come around.
“I honestly didn’t know the level of difference was that high and I realized that when I went down there my freshman year,” junior guard Kailee Newcomb said. “I was like, ‘Wow, it’s very different than the regular season. We’re going to have to step it up a little bit.’ Ever since, we’ve been preparing for that all season, practicing hard, knowing what we’re going to go into.”
Playing a predominantly Class C schedule during the regular season hasn’t been conducive to playoff success. Spruce Mountain already had relatively young teams as the fledgling program began to build after the consolidation of Jay and Livermore Falls.
The Phoenix had no seniors last year and still only have two this year. They still won regular season games by an average of 23 points last year and 27 this year. The smallest margin of victory for the Phoenix this season was 13 points.
“We have a lot of respect for the Mountain Valley Conference and always have,” said Spruce Mountain coach Gavin Kane, whose team has won 45 consecutive regular season games in the MVC. “Personally, I have great loyalty to the league. Unfortunately, we are at a bit of a disadvantage with our regular-season schedule in comparison to the WMC and KVAC teams. They have a more rigorous 18-game schedule. We play quality teams but from top to bottom, those other Class B teams face stiffer competition on a more consistent basis.”
With only two Class B teams in the mix, the conference doesn’t give tourney-bound teams the kind of preparation or point-worthy games that other B teams have. A move to KVAC B is a welcome opportunity to provide a stronger and more consistent level of competition.
“I believe it was a great move on our part to get into the KVAC and something we’re appreciative with our administrators for pursuing,” Kane said. “It is simply something that we need to do for our athletic teams. It will definitely help prepare us for the tournament as we know that our team will have to come to play each night during the regular season.”
That won’t help the Phoenix this year, but the team has tried to bolster its chances by playing a higher level of competition when it can. Spruce Mountain has played teams like McAuley, Marshwod, Thornton Academy, Wells, Lincoln Academy and two teams from New Hampshire, Winnacunnet and Bedford.
“It helps us knowing that they’re going to push us as hard as they can,” senior guard Ladesta Tracy said. “That helps push and helps us know that this is more what we’re looking forward to at tournament time.”
The only playoff win in Spruce Mountain’s brief history to date is a preliminary-round win against Poland at home in its first year. Then, the Phoenix faced a Leavitt club that had two 1,000-point scorers and were coming off a state championship win.
Last year, Spruce Mountain was poised for a matchup with Gray-New Gloucester, but Wells upset the Patriots. The Warriors entered the tourney on a hot streak and gave the Phoenix trouble, in part because veteran forward Victoria Ouellette was out of action with a knee injury.
This season, the Phoenix not only have the advantage of adding some tough A and B teams to their schedule, but another season of maturing as individuals and as a team is showing.
“We definitely feel more prepared,” Newcomb said. “We know what to expect and we’re ready for it. The juniors have been playing together for like forever. So we know what we’re capable of doing. Playing together has really helped us get stronger as a team.”
A year ago they were a team of just two juniors, no seniors and mostly underclassmen.
“I think we’ve come more together than we were last year,” Tracy said. “I think we’re more of a team and bonding more than we were last year.”
“I feel better about going into this year’s tourney as our kids now really understand what to expect and we have really given our kids the opportunity to play some excellent teams in preparation,” Kane said.
The team hopes to get a little last-minute seasoning by scrimmaging Maranacook, a former B school, now seeded second in Western C.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I think we feel like we can face it,” Tracy said of the upcoming tourney. “I definitely feel like we’re more prepared this year. I feel like we have a good chance of going very far in this tournament.”