JAY — Over the course of Spruce Mountain’s summer basketball circuit, the players and head coach Scott Bessey started to see how good the Phoenix could be come the winter season. 

“We did summer ball with coach and that’s where we really started to create bonds together and the team bonding through the summer is great,” junior Lucas Towers said. “Especially last year with COVID, we weren’t sure what we’d have this year but this summer we saw how dominant we could be, especially on defense.”

Everything the Phoenix are trying to do this season starts with their defense and conditioning, because once they make a stop or force a turnover, Bessey expects the players to get out in transition quickly to score on the other end. The players love the style of play. 

Lucas Towers helps his Spruce Mountain teammate Jayden Perrault off the floor during practice in Jay on Tuesday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

“At first, it was our defense, our defense clicked right off the bat this summer and that got us some easy transition buckets,” senior Jayden Perrault said. “Just quick, easy buckets, getting another stop and doing it all over again. Just play out in transition, defense-first team. It’s what we practice for. The first hour of every practice is just conditioning, getting us ready for that. We’ve always been a decently in-shape team because we press so much and get out in transition. I love it, it’s a great way to get out on those quick 8-0 runs.”

Senior Camden Phillips said stopping the ball on defense is the team’s No. 1 priority.

“We want to get the ball as fast as we can, get out in transition and it helps us get a look under the rim for a high-percentage shot. We would rather score in transition than run a play,” Phillips added. “Coach has definitely worked on our defense with presses and zones.”

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Spruce Mountain was picked to finish first in the preseason Mountain Valley Conference coaches poll and Bessey isn’t shying away from the confidence he and the team have. 

“We’re going to be good,” Bessey said. “I’m not a sandbagger, we’re going to be good. We got voted the top team in the conference, as I think we should have, but this will be as balanced of an MVC as it’s been in the 10, going into 11 years that Spruce has been around.”

The players agree that the Phoenix are going to be good, as well. The summer basketball that Spruce Mountain played solidified that for them. 

“I think we had a great summer,” senior Owen Bryant said. “We are definitely better than I thought we’d be. That was just summer, so being in the gym every day, I feel like the sky’s the limit for this team. We went on some win streaks, won a couple tournaments and I feel like that opened our eyes to what we can really do.”

It was Spruce Mountain’s defense that suffocated teams and helped the Phoenix get easy baskets quickly on the other end. 

The Phoenix won a summer tournament at Winthrop and finished runner-up to Mt. Blue in another summer-long tournament they were in. The team got closer, the bond grew and the players improved. 

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Spruce Mountain boys basketball coach Scott Bessey instructs his players at practice on Tuesday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

“Defense is our focal point,” Towers said. “Offensively, we like to get out in transition, play fast, it’s really Phoenix basketball. That’s how we create bonds, is getting out in transition and have fun. We lock down on defense but on offense we have fun.”

While there’s fun to be had, there’s also work to be done.

At practice Tuesday, with some players out due to quarantining, the players were still running sprints, quick passing drills, and shooting tired free throws to simulate end of game situations. 

Seniors Perrault and Bryant were leading the way, as fellow senior captain Phillips was home because of quarantining rules. The senior captains have played a lot of varsity basketball in the last two years and are ready to lead the Phoenix to a playoff run. 

“This reminds me of one of the best teams I’ve had,” Bessey said. “The 2016-17 team that was a shot away from a regional final was probably the most talented team I’ve had. This team has a lot of the same attributes. We will be able to shoot it, drive it, go big, get second-chance shots with our great size and I think I’ll be able to coach less. This team can play defense, cause turnovers, get rebounds and we will be off and running. We will be able to shoot it, drive it, shoot a bunch of free throws and it’s going to be fun. I am looking forward to it.”

The team’s bond is strong. Strong enough to be able to bring in a freshman point guard in Jace Bessey to run the offense. In Spruce Mountain’s preseason showdown with Cheverus, Jace Bessey scored 24 points — 19 of which came in the second half — and almost led the Phoenix to a win. 

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Spruce Mountain was described as a family by Perrault, and that is just as true when it comes to Jace Bessey, who is the son of Scott Bessey and has been coming to and watching practices for years waiting for his chance. 

Spruce Mountain’s Owen Bryant passes to a teammate during a drill at practice on Tuesday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

“Thankfully, this is a community and this is a small community,” Scott Bessey said. “They’ve been seeing this… They’ve helped raise him. It’s a small-town community. It made it easier for me because he is visibly gifted, so it was like, ‘Of course he’s going to be the point guard.’ It makes it easy for him, me, but none of it would be as easy as it’s been if not for the upperclassmen coming and putting their arms around him.”

“I’ve played with Jayce in middle school a bit and last year we knew he was coming up and we assumed he’d be in this role,” Bryant added. “I have faith in him, just making sure that he’s keeping his head up and he’s ready to go.”

Towers said the Phoenix will be good if they can keep their “egos in check,” and Bessey echoed that sentiment, but Bessey is excited to see what the squad can do. 

“We are excited because we have everything a basketball team needs,” Bessey said. “We have size, we have depth, athleticism, shooting, good guards, good forwards and we are excited.”

Spruce Mountain boys basketball coach Scott Bessey instructs his players, including Jayden Perrault (right) on a drill in practice on Tuesday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

Spruce Mountain boys basketball coach Scott Bessey watches practice on Tuesday. Adam Robinson/Sun Journal

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