Buckfield’s Max White shoots the ball against St. Dom’s during a January 2019 game in Buckfield. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

BUCKFIELD — Few would describe a 75-mile, two-hour bus ride to Bingham to open the 2019-20 boys basketball season in front of a hostile home crowd at Upper Kennebec Valley High School as catching a break.

From the perspective of the Buckfield Bucks it is, because at least they will get their second-longest road trip out of the way on opening night.

Yes, second longest. Eleven days later, the Bucks will have to travel 100 miles south (though also a two-hour ride thanks to the Turnpike) to face Seacoast Christian School in Eliot.

The Bucks feel fortunate that this year at least they won’t have to take a three-hour trip (including one hour on the ferry) east to Vinalhaven or north to Jackman. The schedule has them hosting East-West Conferene rivals Vinalhaven and Forest Hills this time after taking those rides last year.

While long road trips aren’t unique to Buckfield or even the sprawling East-West Conference, it is one of the significant obstacles the Bucks have to overcome to compete in basketball as one of the smallest schools in Class C South.

“I feel like we’re in the right direction. The program has grown,” said coach Kyle Rines, who is in his fourth year as varsity coach at his alma mater. “But the mountain is just, it’s Everest.”

While the school competes in Class D in most sports, Buckfield, which currently enrolls approximately 150 students, moved up from Class D to C in 2015 as part of the Maine Principals’ Association’s restructuring that added a fifth class to basketball.

In five seasons, the Bucks have gone 27-48 playing a mix of Class D and smaller Class C schools. They qualified for the preliminary round in 2016, 2018 and 2019, and went on the road each time as the lower seed only to lose. Last year, they were the No. 12 seed and fell to No. 5 Traip, 61-26.

While they take some solace in the fact that Traip went on to beat No. 4 Boothbay in the quarterfinals, Rines and his players know that they have to put themselves in better position to achieve their goal of reaching the quarterfinals and the Augusta Civic Center for the first time since 2012.

The Bucks aren’t complaining about their lot in basketball life. They know that their rival, Richmond, which actually has a slightly smaller enrollment, reached the regional semifinals and nearly upset eventual regional champion Hall-Dale in 2018. They also know that they have to prepare themselves better for the shock to the system that occurs when the playoffs roll around.

“We love our schedule. We enjoy playing in the East-West Conference. We’re competitive in that field,” Rines said. “We’re not quite over the top yet to compete with those C schools on a regular basis.”

“Especially in the playoffs,” junior guard Rick Kraske said. “We’re a small Class C school. Coming in, we just don’t have the depth, we don’t have a big pool to pull from … big, strong players that really know how to play basketball and have the experience.”

With the influx of 10 freshmen and some size, Rines and his veterans believe the Bucks have the talent and depth to close the gap this year. But the coach is challenging his team to maximize its regular season if it wants to maximize its postseason.

“Our best chances realistically are to win 10-plus games and get a shot at a higher seed, even if it’s still a prelim, but hosting that prelim,” he said. “That’s our only shot, really, at Augusta.”

Forward Max White, one of two seniors on the team, knows it’s on the veteran leadership to help the young players develop quickly so that the Bucks have more depth at the end of this season than they did last season.

“We have a really young team this year,” White said. “We have one four-year player, and that’s (senior guard and leading scorer) Tyler (Gammon). So the majority of the team is young players, and going from middle school to high school is a big difference.”

“I think of three words when it comes to the freshmen,” said sophomore guard Zach Shields, “they need motivation, determination and perseverance.”

Even having a big youth movement has its down side, though. Another obstacle the Bucks face to their long-term growth is the lack of junior varsity teams in their conference. Rines said they have just six JV games scheduled and are still looking for more opponents.

In recent years, the Bucks have relied heavily on pace and 3-point shooting to try to overcome a lack of size. While Rines always prefers an up-tempo style, he’s happy to have more of a paint presence and possibly even some mismatches in the Bucks’ favor.

“We’re very big this year, which is a change,” Rines said. “Tyler plays a guard. He goes 6-2 and is very long. Gavin Charest, our big (6-foot-4) freshman, doesn’t play like a freshman. He’ll have his bumps and bruises but he should do very well in our conference.”

Gammon has done very well as an athletic slasher who averaged 18 points per game last year. He will be one of the top players in Class C this year.

“He runs the court extremely well. He’s a gazelle,” Rines said. “He finishes at the rim well. We’re working on his outside game because he needs to develop that, but when he’s under control he’s tough to stop.”

Gammon said the Bucks wouldn’t have done as well as they have in Class C if not for their coach’s high expectations.

“I’d say he’s very demanding, but also a fun coach to play for at the same time,” Gammon said. “He works us super-hard in practices and there’s lots of running. I like the fire in him. It gives me a fire and makes me want to play harder.”

Rines hopes a deep tournament run can inspire a rebirth of hoops hysteria that gripped the town in the 1980s and 1990s, when Buckfield won three Class D state championships and lost in two other title games during a 13-year span.

“My goal is to improve the status of Buckfield basketball,” Rines said. “There’s a good tradition in our town in the sport of basketball. We just want to try to get there again.”


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