AUGUSTA — Forest Hills and Valley might be the friendliest boys basketball rivalry in the state. You’ll find more animosity at a chilli cook off than you will between the Tigers and the Cavaliers.
“While you’re playing, it’s super intense,” said Gordon Hartwell, minutes before the start of the Western Class D regional final between Forest Hills and Valley. Hartwell played basketball at Valley and coached the girls team at the school for years. His twin sons, Jason and Luke, won four state titles as Cavaliers. If anyone would throw some bile into this rivalry, it would be Hartwell.
“I want to beat ‘em, and I want to beat ‘em bad. But if it goes the wrong way, I hope they beat Central Aroostook (in the state championship),” Hartwell said. “They’re all good people.”
So much for bile and venom. There’s so much mutual respect here, a noogie would be considered out of bounds.
“We definitely respect each other. They’re awesome basketball players,” Forest Hills senior Derick Ouellette said.
Jackman, home of Forest Hills High School, and Bingham, home of Valley, are wide spots on Route 201, the highway that cuts a path down the middle of Somerset County. They’re separated by approximately 50 miles of woods. One fan watched the game wearing a moose head, and only the orange cap tucked between the antlers tipped off the moose as a Forest Hills fan.
Combine the enrollments of Valley and Forest Hills, and you still have a school comfortably in Class D. These communities are small, isolated, and in this together.
“We share the same stretch of the county,” Valley coach Wade Morrill said. “When I was playing, I don’t remember it being as intense as it is now. A lot of that had to do with the fact that Coach Amero has build such a strong program there.”
In 16 years as coach at Forest Hills, Anthony Amero has turned the Tigers into perennial contenders for the Western Class D title. When Amero arrived in Jackman, Valley was just starting its history-making run of six straight state titles and 101 consecutive wins. The Tigers took their lumps.
Amero recalled a 106-46 loss to the Cavaliers 11 years ago.
“It made our program better, though,” Amero said.
Saturday’s Western Class D championship game was the third time these teams met in the playoffs in the last six years. Valley won a semifinal game over the Tigers in 2008, 60-44. Last season, Forest Hills took a 54-46 win in the semis. This 40-33 win sends the Tigers to the state championship game for the second straight year.
Even with a trophy case full of gold balls back in Bingham, even with nothing with respect for Amero and his team, the loss bothered Morrill. It’s motivation, and will sit in his memory for months.
“The rivalry is alive and well. We don’t like to lose to them. Hopefully, this is the last time we lose to them, if I have anything to do with it,” Morrill said.
“We’re going to battle, because each one of us is trying for a title every year. But when you wake up the next day, you just have respect for each other.,” Amero said “We’re not going to do dirty things. They’re not going to do dirty things. We’re just going to work hard and they’re going to work hard.”
Morrill and Amero conducted their pregame interviews for Maine Public Broadcasting together. The two coaches have exchanged scouting reports on opponents.
“We’re so far from everybody else. We’ve got a tough league, with the Hydes, some of those schools coming in now, the A.R. Goulds, Seacoast Christian. We don’t play the same schools, so we try to help each other,” Amero said. “I think we think a little bit alike, defensively. When we do scouting reports, I find his are very similar to what I send him.”
Nobody is driving from Bingham to Jackman to hang blue Valley signs from the streetlights. Nobody is driving from Jackman to Bingham to sing the Forest Hills fight song in front of town hall. Forest Hills won this round, and Valley fans wished the Tigers well in the state championship game next week.
“Today was our day, but if you play that game 100 times, it’s going to go 50-50,” Amero said.
That’s what fans from both sides are counting on.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242