Maranacook’s Cash McClure shoots a 3-pointer in front of cardboard cutouts during a central Maine basketball tournament game in Readfield in March. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Cash McClure was a star player for Maranacook Community High School, but playing basketball in Readfield, Maine, isn’t exactly an easy destination for the college coaches he wants to come see him play.

Sure, there are highlight packages online of Cash playing for the Black Bears, and maybe a coach saw the Class B state championship game against Caribou on television when he scored 33 points as a junior. 

But for McClure, the sure-fire way to be seen was to play on Amateur Athletic Union  and travel basketball teams outside of Maine.

Former University of Maine basketball player Ramone Jones coaches players at the Maine Top 30 Camp on Saturday at XL Sports World in Saco. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

The summer AAU and travel season has wrapped up, and some of the state’s top high school players will be moving on to prep schools — such as McClure, who will play at Kimball Union Academy in Meridian, New Hampshire.

Other players will either be starting fall sports next week or beginning to prepare for the 2021-22 high school basketball season. Throughout the summer, these athletes had a chance to play in front of college coaches. But did they have a chance to improve their skills — will they be significantly better players for their teams than they were last winter, and are they closer to securing a coveted scholarship offer?

This summer, McClure joined the New York Lightning for some games throughout the United States, then played for the Middlesex Magic, out of Massachusetts, for the remainder of the summer. McClure fulfilled his objective of garnering the attention of NCAA Division I, II and III coaches.

“I got attention from all three levels, which is a big deal for me and my family,” said McClure, the 2021 Mr. Maine Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year. “That was pretty cool. I’ve gotten more attention playing with these AAU teams this summer than ever.”

Another Mainer on the Middlesex team was catching college coaches’ eyes: Dom Campbell, a Maine native who played at Waynflete before enrolling at Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire prior to the 2020-21 school year in an effort to receive more college offers. The interest in Campbell ramped up after a good showing for the Middlesex Magic at a tournament in Dallas in May, and he ended up committing to the University of Notre Dame last month.

Coaches and players from throughout the state see positives in Maine high school players joining AAU and travel basketball teams during the offseason. But there also are negatives, particularly from high school coaches’ points of view.

Leavitt Area High School boys basketball coach Mike Hathaway, who also has coached travel teams, such as the XL Thunder last summer, said the most important element of whether or not AAU is a positive thing in a player’s development is their coach.

“I think there’s a lot of benefits to it, but I know there are drawbacks, as well,” Hathaway, who also is Leavitt’s football coach, said. “I think a lot of it has come down to who is my kid’s coach going to be? That probably matters more than the program itself, really.”

Hathaway coached his son Wyatt‘s travel teams for several years before Wyatt started playing on the same teams as McClure. 

EXPOSURE IS KEY

Troy Barnies, a former Edward Little High School star and current international pro player who helped Hathaway coach the XL Thunder last year, said that he can see both sides of AAU. He admits he benefited from the program, traveling around New England to get his name out there, which ultimately  resulted in him signing with the University of Maine. But, he said, there also are drawbacks.

“I think it’s an amazing chance for kids from states like Maine, who are in a rural area of the U.S. and need to travel to be seen and give themselves a chance for the exposure wanted,” Barnies said. “The bad side of it is the politics and business side. You’ll see a lot that some AAU teams and programs have turned into cash grabs, and some coaches use kids to their advantage for exposure to their programs or themselves.”

Cooper Flagg, a soon-to-be ninth grader at Nokomis High School this fall, has already received a scholarship offer from Division-I Bryant University, despite not yet playing a minute of high school hoops. He and twin his brother, Ace, have received exposure through playing with their AAU team, Maine United, which is coached by former Mountain Valley High School standout Andy Bedard.

Exposure is a crucial aspect of AAU and one of its biggest draws for kids.

AAU teams aren’t the only avenue players use in their attempt To capture the attention of college coaches. Many athletes also work with trainers who have large social media followings as well as influence within basketball circles.

Ben Teer, a Maine-based trainer, is constantly working with kids, shooting videos of their workouts and then posting them on Instagram. He said he is continuously building connections with coaches and has been able to make basketball training his full-time job. 

“I just worked with Cash (McClure), and the latest offer he had, the head coach followed me on Twitter. So social media is huge,” Teer said. “I 100 percent know that there are kids I’ve posted about or tagged on social media and then assistant coaches will … get their names and be on the lookout for them, then months later I’ll see they’ve been recruited or offered (scholarships by those coaches).

“I think social media is a huge reason why kids get recruited, and it’s why I tag kids (in social media posts) so much.”

Dylan Goodman, left, and Ben Teer look watch players practicing at the Maine Top 30 Camp on Saturday at XL Sports World in Saco. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Teer has taken his process to the next level by starting his own recruiting business, Ben Teer Recruiting. He said that he met with a family whose daughter is already in college, and they said that if they had the access to what Teer is doing for athletes — on social media, with his Maine Top 30 basketball camp — that their daughter would have had a scholarship to play in college. 

“The whole purpose behind it is to give people a place where parents don’t have to do the dirty work, parents don’t have to worry about kids using just AAU for exposure. I can use my social media following, my connections and my understanding of the market and the business,” Teer said.

STYLE OF PLAY CHANGES

Tony Staffiere is a former assistant coach at the University of Maine and Colby College who now trains kids through his program, Core Values Basketball. He says some kids join AAU for the wrong reasons — they want coaches’ attention but don’t want to earn it.

“I work with kids all over Central Maine, and I’ll get a kid and the parents will say, ‘So and so can’t make it (to training sessions) because they have six games in Saco,’” Staffiere said. “That’s too bad, because he needs about six months of shooting to rebuild his mechanics. He goes and drives 90 minutes there, plays 10-15 minutes a game and then drives 90 minutes back and spent more time in the car than on the court.

“They’re playing less minutes in a game (rather) than doing the boring stuff that will help them get better. That’s troubling to me.”

Basketball trainer Dylan Goodman talks players through a drill at the Maine Top 30 Camp on Saturday at XL Sports World in Saco. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

UMaine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon agrees that kids aren’t practicing the fundamentals enough.

“I am a proponent of (AAU) for some people,” Vachon said. “I think too many people play AAU, and I think camps, fundamentals and playing in the driveway have gone by the wayside, and a lot of times when you go to an AAU tournament, you may get 10 shots up the whole weekend. I think (AAU is) invaluable for others. I think it’s probably overrated. I think it depends.”

Edward Little High School boys basketball coach Mike Adams, who said he sees the pros and cons of AAU, echoes Vachon’s sentiments about the intricate aspects of basketball fading away, due, in part, to AAU’s style of fast, hyper-athletic basketball. 

“This isn’t an AAU problem, I think it’s a societal problem, but I think a lot of kids think that playing AAU is the answer, and that’s just a very small part of it,” Adams said. “I had somebody say to me years ago, ‘Do you ever notice that when you drive through Auburn and you look at all the houses with the basketball hoops?’ I said, ‘Yeah, pretty amazing, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘Well, nobody’s out there shooting on them.’ It’s true. So kids think that by traveling two hours to play in an AAU tournament, and play in two, four or six games and get maybe 10 shots up a game, then they drive back, and think they are getting better. Very few kids are getting themselves into gyms and just shooting.”

Meanwhile, Cooper Flagg said that AAU basketball has helped he and his brother prepare for high school hoops because they’re already accustomed to playing against older competition.

“I think we’ve always just rolled with it because we’ve always just been playing up,” Cooper Flagg said. “We’ve just been used to it since we were young, so it hasn’t affected us because we have played against older kids since we were young.”

Basketball trainer Ben Teer talks to players at the Maine Top 30 Camp on Saturday at XL Sports World in Saco. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Lexi Mittelstadt, who will be a sophomore on the UMaine women’s team this season, said AAU was helpful in her development because she was able to play, and defend, different positions, which prepared her for college. 

“It helped my high school game a lot, for sure,” Mittelstadt, who played at Mt. Blue High School, said. “It taught me to play faster. … I played a different position in AAU than in high school, so it gave me more variety in my game. I was able to guard taller players, and so that helped when I went back to high school.

“The energy is just different, too. You’re in a room full of basketball players who love the game and are filled with more energy than players you might see in high school.”

Players and coaches sometimes have differing opinions when it comes to AAU basketball. As it grows in popularity, former Rangeley Lakes Regional School girls basketball coach Heidi Deery hopes it doesn’t take away from the high school game.

It’s kind of like an all-star game everyday. They’re fun to watch, but it’s not like watching a team that worked their fannies off all summer, all fall, then you spend six days a week together through the winter,” said Deery, who will soon be inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. “I think there’s a place for AAU, but I hope it doesn’t replace high school basketball. And the (participation) numbers in high school are getting a little scary — that’s across the state and the country.”

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