MONMOUTH — With the exception of perennials such as Boothbay and Wiscasset, the Western Class C tournament has essentially been a revolving door of schools through the last decade.

Once a Hall-Dale or a Jay has completed its seven- or eight-year run of annual trips to the Augusta Civic Center, a Dirigo and a Traip Academy step in and become regular guests of the Maine Principals’ Association. Even a self-described hockey school like St. Dom’s made multiple visits to the state capital in the 2000’s.

Noticeably absent from the glossy Class C tournament programs has been Monmouth Academy. Since moving up from Class D  in 2001, the Mustangs haven’t set foot into the ACC. In fact, most of the players’ parents were still in high school the last time Monmouth played in a Class C quarterfinal

“It was a while ago,” said senior guard Tim Whitmore.

It was 1977 to be exact, before the tournament even moved to Augusta (it called Edward Little High School home then). When they were in Class D, the Mustangs regularly made the short bus trip to Augusta, advancing as far as the regional final in 2001. But they will break their Class C drought Monday when, as the sixth seed, they face third-seeded Old Orchard Beach.

The wait has been a long one for Mustangs fans, but the team’s turnaround took place overnight, relatively speaking. In 2009-10, Lucas Turner took over a program that had gone 9-27 the previous two years and immediately molded the Mustangs into a competitive team.

A former JV coach at Gray-New Gloucester and player at Penobscot Valley, Turner brought an Eastern Maine flavor to the Mustangs by preaching the fundamentals, defense and teamwork.

“He’s done a lot to turn things around here,” senior forward Roger Bachelder said. “He’s all about playing defense. That’s what wins games.”

The players bought in quickly. Monmouth finished the regular season at 10-8 and made the preliminary round, where it lost to Traip.

The loss made the players who were returning for 2010-11 hungrier.

“I think we got a taste of it,” Whitmore said, “and when Traip came in here on our home court and beat us, I think it sent a message to us who were going to be seniors that we needed to step it up if we were going to beat the elite teams.”

“Last year showed them how far they could go and that there’s much, much more,” Turner said. “It showed if you do things the right way — play good defense, play smart offense — you can maximize your potential. I felt like we did that last year, but there’s something to be said for being there before.”

With a strong nucleus of seniors — Whitmore, Bachelder and guards Jeremy Ashlock and Robby Neal — back for this season, the Mustangs set their sites on taking a direct path to the tournament.

“Our main goal was to make it to Augusta straight through, without a prelim, and our coach said it was going to take 12 wins to do it,” Bachelder said.

The Mustangs made their intentions know immediately. On opening night, they beat Boothbay, one of the MVC preseason favorites, 65-62. They went on to win seven of their first nine before Boothbay gained its revenge with a 63-53 victory on Jan. 14.

The second Boothbay game kicked off the most difficult stretch of the season, which also included games with Winthrop, Wiscasset and Dirigo. The Mustangs edged Winthrop by a point, then took Dirigo, the top team in Western C, to overtime before losing by three points.

“We lost that game but I think we grew from that loss,” Ashlock said. “I don’t think that was necessarily a bad loss.”

Monmouth emerged from the Dirigo game more confident than ever and came from behind to edge Wiscasset in overtime.

“That (first) Boothbay game definitely set the tone for the season,” said Whitmore, who was the Mountain Valley Conference’s Player of the Year in the Southern Division. “And then to have the double-overtime game against Wiscasset really put us over the edge.”

Whitmore, Bachelder and Neal were the holdovers who saw significant playing time last year. The trio helped set the tone for this season and ended up garnering all-MVC honors and a “Big Three” nickname.

“Having their leadership has been big,” Turner said. “Playing with last year’s seniors, learning a different offense with a new coach and a different defensive style and having them bring that forward into this year, those three really helped everyone else grow with their basketball. And all of them playing all last summer, last year and then this past summer, they didn’t just get older. They got another year better.”

The stars are quick to point out, however, that the Mustangs, who did indeed end up winning 12 games, didn’t truly start clicking until the supporting cast started doing its part.

“People can say our team revolves around the ‘Big Three,’ but our role players have really stepped up,” Neal said.

“It’s not just the four seniors,” Ashlock said. “We have a lot of role players that do a lot of little things for us. Even in practice, the kids that don’t see a lot of playing time help us by pushing the starters to get better.”

All of the players may be pushing each other out of the way to be the first to get into the Civic Center on Monday. Turner expects them to be a little in awe of their surroundings at first but wants them to be ready to get down to business when game-time is near.

“We’re going to go in there early so we can drool on the court and drool in the locker room,” he said.  “It’s not a basketball game. It’s an event. But we’re going there to compete.”

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