The Spruce Mountain boys basketball team’s captains, from left, Cameron Cain, Jack Bryant and Brandon Frey, have been an integral part of the team’s success this season, during which the Phoenix have overcome injuries and illness that have depleted their bench. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

JAY — Scott Bessey held his breath, as most high school basketball coaches do, during football season, hoping his best players, seniors Brandon Frey and Jack Bryant, would emerge without more than a few bumps and bruises.

The season was going as smoothly as all three could expect until 10 days before Spruce Mountain’s basketball tryouts.

One quarter into the Phoenix’s regional semifinal football game in Winthrop, Bryant, Spruce’s dynamic quarterback, had to be carried off the field with a knee injury. Minutes later, Frey, the Phoenix’s explosive multi-purpose weapon who had just stepped in at QB for Bryant, collapsed on Maxwell Field with a knee injury of his own.

Bessey received the news of both injuries via Twitter.

“Obviously, the heart goes into your mouth when you hear that,” he said.

Frantic texting to eyewitnesses at the game followed. Early tests on both players painted a bleak picture for both them and the basketball season.


Bryant and Frey, the only two returning starters, each admit their thoughts turned to basketball before they were even carried off the field.

“It was awful having the football season end that way,” Bryant said, “but then the possibility of that taking over basketball season was just heart-breaking.”

Fortunately, both injuries turned out to be MCL strains, not torn ligaments as initially feared. But it was still an omen of the hard luck that would confront the Phoenix over the next four months.

Brandon Frey of Spruce Mountain High School floats a shot past Manny Calder of Monmouth Academy in Jay last month. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

But thanks in part to how it overcame early-, mid- and late-season setbacks to earn a 14-4 record and the No. 2 seed in the Class B South tournament, Spruce Mountain goes into its quarterfinal against Cape Elizabeth (5:30 p.m. Friday at the Portland Expo) feeling just as confident as it did when it left summer ball with a strong, and healthy, eight-man rotation.

Bessey’s depth chart started taking hits even before Bryant and Frey were done taking hits on the gridiron. One quarter of it vanished when one player transferred to Mt. Blue and another informed Bessey that he’d decided to join the ski team.

The Phoenix opened the season at Hall-Dale with sophomores Jayden Perrault and Owen Bryant, Jack’s brother, in the starting lineup instead of the reserve roles Bessey had projected for them. Jack Bryant, who missed all of preseason, was wearing a knee brace but playing, while Frey was wearing a knee brace under his street clothes on the bench.


“And then one quarter into our season, (starting junior forward) Lorne Grondin broke his finger,” Bessey said.

“That kind of threw us for a loop, too,” Frey said. “He’s coming back now and we’re trying to get everything just right, but we didn’t have him most of the season.”

Spruce Mountain’s Cameron Cain (12) looks to pass the ball as Oak Hill’s Jackson Arbor (20) and Liam Rodriquez (10) intervene in Jay in December. Tony Blasi/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Grondin, Spruce’s lone post presence, missed the next 14 games. Yet the Phoenix won the opener, Frey returned for the next game, and they rolled off six wins in a row to start the season.

It didn’t take long for Frey’s scoring, Bryant’s versatility and fellow senior captain Cameron Cain’s steadiness in his first season running the point to meet Bessey’s initial projections. But Perrault and Owen Bryant, both forwards, exceeded all expectations in their expanded roles.

“They went from seventh and eighth on the depth chart (during summer ball) to starting as sophomores,” Bessey said. “I couldn’t ask anything more from them.”

The Phoenix’s first scoreboard setback, a three-point loss at Boothbay, only injected them with more confidence. They finished the first half of the season 8-1 despite using only six players during most games.


“We played every game like it was a big game and didn’t overlook any team,” Cain said.

But just when it seemed like they could endure the worst that the injury bug had to offer, they were visited by the flu bug, which sidelined both Bryant brothers and left them with only seven available players, including Cain a little more than 24 hours removed from a 102 temperature, for a home loss to Monmouth.

“It was a disaster. We were sick and then (freshman reserve) Lucas Towers got sick and it was, like, this can’t get much worse,” Bryant said.

Spruce Mountain’s Jack Bryant drives to the basket while being defended by Monmouth’s Gabe Martin last month in Monmouth. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Fortunately for the Phoenix, it hasn’t gotten worse. The flu vanished in time for a showdown with defending Class C champion Winthrop, which Spruce handed its first loss, 52-41.

“It was different kind of feel to that game,” Jack Bryant said. “We were so locked-in and prepared. We were running like a well-oiled machine.”

The Phoenix thought they might run even smoother when Grondin returned for senior night against Mountain Valley, until a loss to the Falcons reminded them nothing is guaranteed even when back to full health.


“We had Boothbay next and that game was a must-win for a lot of reasons. If we don’t (win), we were looking at a three-game losing streak to end the season,” Bessey said.

The Phoenix pulled out a vital 65-54 win at Boothbay before dropping their final game, the grudge match at Winthrop, in what was by their own admission a 55-30 stinker on Jan. 31.

Rather than dwell on the loss to Winthrop, which is once again the top seed in C South, Spruce has used the time since then to appreciate how the last few months have toughened it up, mentally and physically, for the tournament.

“The first Winthrop game was big and (playing) Boothbay away was big, in terms of confidence and momentum going into playoffs,” Cain said. “We’ve just got to go into it confident and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the playoffs.”

“I feel like it will make us better for playoffs,” said Frey, a 5-foot-7 guard who was the Mountain Valley Conference’s player of the year. “I don’t think most teams have gone through what we have.”

One may wonder if the Phoenix have anything left to get through the Class B tournament, which no MVC team has won since Mountain Valley in 2007.

The seniors have no such doubts.

“Coach has talked, and I remember from years past, the urgency the seniors have,” Bryant said. “It means more. You want it more and you’re willing to work more for it.”

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