FARMINGTON — Take a good look at their wide smiles and you will also see the Mt. Blue Cougars brimming with confidence, jocularity and a spring in their jump shots.

A winning season will do that to any boys’ basketball team that has fallen on hard times and experienced many coaching changes over the past several years. Prosperity also puts the kibosh on dissension, and team unity flourishes with each crucial victory.

Before their surge and vaulting to near the top of the MPA Class A Heal point standings with an 11-7 record, Mt. Blue was treading water for the past three seasons, winning just five total games.

How to explain Mt. Blue’s sudden success? First-year coach Travis Magnusson is reluctant to take all the credit for the Cougars’ turnaround voyage this season, but the four seniors insisted the coach’s presence has made a world of difference in the program.

Taking the helm

Magnusson knew what he was getting into when he took the job of reviving the struggling Cougars.

“That’s what everybody had said, and in the first couple of weeks of summer, we definitely had to build our culture, talk about some things, but I think that was the key,” Magnusson said. “We had a great summer. We obviously got tough players who work and they are coachable, so they bought into stuff right away.”

It also helps that Magnusson has an ensemble cast of capable, assistant coaches on hand. Brian Kelley oversees the junior varsity team, and Magnusson’s father, Marty, and Jason Briggs, the former Waterville High School coach, bring their expertise to the team.

“I think (Briggs) is helping, and he was one of the best varsity coaches in the state when he was coaching and he went into administration,” Magnusson said. “So having him on the bench is unbelievable. That really makes us so much better. Briggs has taken over our zone defenses at practice. It has been huge having him with us, and my dad has been with me coaching seven years at Dirigo. He relates so well with the kids. He works with the post guys. He has great knowledge of the game.

“Having those two at practice every day and focused on keeping us going has been huge for the coaching staff.

Magnusson also praises last year’s Mt. Blue coach, Charlie Castonguay.

“I think Coach Castonguay did a really good job getting things set up to be good this year. He came in here working hard. I thought he was always a good coach and they had some tough breaks last year. This year, the breaks are going in our direction. We were in a good position to succeed, too. We didn’t think it would happen this quick. We are definitely pleasantly surprised.”

What they like about him

There is no question each victory has bolstered the Cougars’ confidence and moved them closer to the postseason, but seniors Garrett Reynolds, James Anderson, Randy Barker and Caleb Talbot all say Magnusson’s arrival and his message inspired the Cougars to make their case on the court.

“Man, he made the world of difference, you know,” Reynolds, a shooting guard, said. “He expects the best out of us and he knows how to get it.

“I appreciate him a lot because he is the fourth coach I have had in four years — never got used to anything. I have always wanted to win, you know. It has been a long time coming. Everyone started to work a lot harder when he came in. It feels really good, rewarding. It’s real fun.”

Center Caleb Talbot has gotten used to the winning feeling in a hurry.

“It is different, but it feels great,” Talbot said. “Going into the locker room afterward, screaming and jumping. It’s electrifying. I am having a great time. I dunno, it’s loose. Obviously there is so much pressure because we have a lot to prove still.”

Talbot added that Magnusson’s enthusiasm and dedication is contagious.

“He came in, and obviously we had some struggles in recent, past years, but he came in and brought an intensity that we needed and got us all to buy into what he was telling us,” Talbot said. “I think we are more of a family now, and like I said, we are buying into what coach has to say.”

That winning feeling sits well with forward Randy Barker, who is convinced Magnusson is one of the reasons for the team’s prosperity.

“I love what he has brought to the team. Honestly, the energy, intensity, like everything we do in practice is a heckuva lot better than we have ever had,” Barker said. “Honestly, way more fun to win than losing. I like him.”

“I love him,” small forward James Anderson said. “He is a great coach. He pushes us very hard and believes in us. It is just a new style of play with him. We had him during the summer. We loved him.”

Huge appetite for winning

Magnusson pointed out that there are many explanations for the Cougars’ sudden success — and the biggest factor is Mt. Blue’s desire to win and its grit.

“I think that what I notice from these guys is they are hungry,” Magnusson said. “It’s key. I think a lot of high school kids, you know, you have a three-hour practice, you get a practice canceled, some of the kids are, ‘Yes, the practice got canceled.’

“These kids love to work, love to play. So if we are missing practice, like, they are going to be mad. They would probably practice seven days a week if we could. They just love to be in the gym. They love to get better, so that attitude, No. 1, and just willing to work. They are getting after it.

“We are doing a lot of great things, but it all starts with that. They want to work. I think they are tough. They have a lot of fight. You see it in our close games, when a lot of teams could give up, they keep fighting, so I think they have a really tough mentality to them.”

That attribute of durability has given the Cougars resiliency, especially in close games.

“The biggest thing we talked as coaches all along, how they would react in the close games, big environments,” Magnusson said. “We didn’t know how they would react, and they found a way to win those close games. There is something about them — their confidence, or whatever it is, has allowed us to win those close games, and that is all them.

“A lot of people said the coach has done it. So, I mean, coaches don’t win. It is the players winning the games and they are making the plays out there when they need to.

“Just a bunch of kids who will not give in and they will fight, fight, fight all the time, and when we have been down 10, come back … just resiliency is the biggest thing with them and it is just different guys step up. We have a couple of guys who are game scorers, but every guy on our team could be the guy that has the four big points or a charge or a couple of big rebounds. That’s good that we have balance there.”

All this success has culminated in an atmosphere of infectious enthusiasm at Mt. Blue.

“We are all looking out for each other, and it is not like a one-man show,” Talbot said. “I think what we have is we are connecting more than usual. We hold each other to higher standards and we don’t bring each other down.”

Barker echoed Talbot’s sentiment about the Cougars’ team unity.

“We brought it together,” Barker said. “We became a team. We worked harder in practice. We took our stuff way more serious. We worked harder in the offseason. Winning is a lot better than going home upset after you lose. We haven’t had a winning season in three years.”

One dark spot during an otherwise striking season was a recent accusation that one of their players allegedly used a racial slur during a game with Cony High School. But Magnusson was not permitted to discuss the accusation and the matter was handled by the administration.

Magnusson, a Georges Valley graduate, has been coaching high school basketball for 11 years. He has discovered that the two constants in the game are team enthusiasm and energy.

“I think the biggest thing we tried to get going was our culture and energy. So if you come and watch us play, we are going to try and have more enthusiasm than any other team,” Magnusson said. “We are going to try to have more energy.

“It is really important to us that, not only are the players energized on the court, but if you watch us, our whole bench is engaged. They are going after each other. No matter where I coached, that has has been my No. 1 emphasis to get people excited, get people energized because it is a lot more fun to watch and you play better. So that has been a big thing for us.”

Winning, and with several devoted coaches on board, explains why the Cougars have reason to smile this season.

Mt. Blue shooting guard Garrett Reynolds looks to pass the ball against Gardiner High School last month. (Sun Journal photol by Tony Blasi)

Mt. Blue small forward James Anderson (11) goes up for a shot in a game against Gardiner High School last month. (Sun Journal photo by Tony Blasi)





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