Lakers seeking a championship 64 years in the making
GREENVILLE — The Greenville Lakers should have been riding high entering the 2017-2018 schoolboy basketball season.
All five starters were back from the 2017 team that finished 20-2 and captured the Class D South championship before falling to Machias in the state title game.
All that experience and the added motivation of aspiring to avenge that state-final loss followed the Lakers into the new winter. The senior-laden squad sought to capture the school’s first state championship since 1954 when Maine Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Wayne Champeon led Greenville to the Class M crown.
But something wasn’t quite right.
The Lakers opened with a 55-50 loss at Class C Piscataquis of Guilford then, less than 48 hours later, lost again, this time by 10 points at Forest Hills of Jackman.
Time to panic? No, time for third-year Greenville head coach Bill Foley to break out his Hawaiian shirt.
“I wanted to send the message that we’re also out here to have some fun along the way and just to relax,” said Foley, who wore the Hawaiian shirt on the sidelines during Greenville’s third game, a 50-31 victory over Bangor Christian.
And while Foley has reverted to more traditional coaching attire, his team hasn’t lost since its 0-2 start. Greenville takes a 19-game winning streak into Saturday’s Class D state championship game against Woodland (18-3) at the Augusta Civic Center.
“That was me misreading my team,” said Foley of his team’s slow start. “I spent an entire year worrying about them being overconfident, cocky, looking past people, but come to find out we weren’t cocky, we were nervous. We were playing tight, playing not to lose instead of to win. It took me two games to figure it out.”
While the reversion to championship form wasn’t immediate, a resurgence of confidence soon engulfed the roster.
“Once we started to calm down things got a lot better, and it showed up on defense, too,” said senior forward Connor DiAngelo. “We weren’t playing so tight and defense led to offense and we just got more into our type of basketball.”
That defensive focus has been most notable of late, as Greenville allowed only 76 points in three Class D South tournament victories.
“Coming into practices we started putting more emphasis on our defensive intensity,” said senior guard Noah Pratt. “Our shooting wasn’t necessarily better at first but our defense was a lot better so we were holding teams to far fewer points.”
Pratt, DiAngelo and classmates Evan Bjork and Nick Foley have played basketball together since the third grade.
Coming from a small town with a high school enrollment of approximately 80, that meant a lot of competition against teams from bigger towns and bigger schools.
Those uphill battles didn’t produce immediate results in terms of wins and championships, but they served to establish a basketball foundation that eventually generated success once the team began facing more schools of similar size.
“We’ve developed together from a young age and playing a lot of the bigger schools helped,” said Nick Foley, son of the coach and 1,000-point scorer for the Lakers. “We just put in a lot of work during the offseason and we’re real close, we have good chemistry, so I feel like it was all in the making.”
By the time the seniors entered high school — though because of school size Foley and DiAngelo made their varsity debuts as eighth-graders — they got to play more similarly sized schools as part of the East-West Conference, a league consisting of other Class D South (formerly West) schools.
After a 7-11 season in 2015, the Lakers improved to 13-5 in 2016 and scored the program’s first tournament victory in nearly a decade.
“We’d had a real mental block about Augusta, so we made sure we got down there for three or four games in the summer and three or four games in the fall,” said coach Foley. “Now it’s just another floor. They don’t give it a second thought.”
Last year saw another leap forward, as Greenville went 17-1 during the regular season and won its first regional championship since the ’54 team, a surge attributable to several factors beyond sheer additional experience.
Nick Foley grew from 5-foot-4 to a solid 6 feet tall between his sophomore and junior years and became even more of a multi-dimensional threat at point guard. Devin Boone, a 6-3 center, joined the program as a junior after moving to the area from Kansas.
And the team’s shift to the eastern Maine-based Penobscot Valley Conference a year earlier began to produce benefits.
“Once we switched to the Penobscot Valley Conference we faced a lot of Class C competition during the season and we started playing a lot of B and C schools during the offseason,” said DiAngelo. “The better competition gives you an upper hand because you have to work through a lot of tough games where you may not feel like you’re the most talented team, but the team chemistry from playing together for so long pulls you through.”
The challenge ahead
Nick Foley and Boone both earned All-PVC first-team honors this winter, but a key area of improvement for the Lakers has been their offensive balance.
“Last year a lot of our scoring, especially in the tournament, was Nick and Devin and a lot of us really struggled shooting in the state game,” said DiAngelo. “I think we’re a better shooting team now, a lot more spread out than we were last year.”
That balance will be tested against a similarly deep Woodland team that is seeking its first state championship since 2009.
“They put five athletic kids on the floor at all times, there’s no one you can slough off on,” said coach Foley. “They’re high energy, they’re aggressive and their big kid (Justin Worden) is very mobile.”
But basketball is king on the shores of Moosehead Lake these days, too. And with more than six decades of championship anticipation behind them, Greenville’s seniors — all of whom are headed to four-year colleges next fall — have a clear sense of what a gold ball would mean to their community.
“The whole town would just love it,” said DiAngelo. “When Greenville won the state championship in baseball (2011) it was just a celebration for the whole town, like during the Fourth of July parade they ran around with the gold glove. The whole town has our backs and everybody’s going to be there so we want to win it for them.”