As the Forest Hills girls basketball team arrived in Jackman Saturday evening, fans were lined up and down the road. Mack trucks, fire trucks, and border patrol officers all honked their horns.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Forest Hills coach Mike LeBlanc said.
“It was wild,” senior Kori Coro said. “We had people sitting on top of the buses. It was very, very loud.”
The town was celebrating the Tigers’ 53-52 victory over Rangeley in that day’s Western D championship game. The win kept Forest Hills undefeated at 20-0, and extended the Tigers’ season by one more game — the Class D final against Washburn at 1:05 p.m., Saturday, at the Augusta Civic Center.
Much of the team’s success this winter comes from what LeBlanc calls “the core four” — seniors Anna Carrier, Jocelyn Hoyt, Dana McNally, and Coro. An even bigger reason might be the way this team interacts with each other.
Any girls basketball coach will tell you that it can sometimes be a challenge to keep a dozen teenage girls from killing each other when they have to spend almost every day together from November to February. In previous years, Forest Hills had that problem, but the Tigers have had much better chemistry this season.
“It’s made a huge difference,” LeBlanc said. “Huge difference. I’ve had teams before that had as much talent, and there was always that little dissension thing. Now, they actually like each other.”
“We just knew if we kept up with the stuff in the past,” Carrier said, “like, â€˜This person’s going to score. We don’t want this person to score,’ we weren’t going to go very far.”
Before the season, LeBlanc sent out text messages to the players with a simple message: Together we believe. Together we achieve.
“The beginning of the season, our coach told us, â€˜No drama, because you will lose,'” Hoyt said. “After that, we pretty much got rid of it, because we wanted to win.”
LeBlanc has two daughters who played field hockey for Skowhegan this fall, when the Indians won their 12th state title in 13 years. He reminded the Tigers several times about how unselfish the Skowhegan players are.
“Their leading scorer isn’t even their best player sometimes,” LeBlanc said. “Everyone else has to do the dirty work. They’re successful because everyone wants to be successful as a team.”
Another thing the Tigers borrowed from Skowhegan was an offshoot of the Indians’ “Secret Sisters” idea. It’s kind of like Secret Santa, but when you draw a player before each home game, you get her a gift and make her a poster. The Tigers made posters for each player and one for LeBlanc.
LeBlanc’s poster has been updated many times this winter. When WABI sportscaster Tim Throckmorton called LeBlanc a “Skowhegan legend,” the word “Legend” was added to LeBlanc’s poster.
“It’s just things that happen in practice,” Hoyt said. “We had a dance for our senior game. He had us all line up, so we called him our choreographer. Stuff like that comes up, and we’re like, â€˜We gotta put that on the poster.'”
McNally has developed into a true point guard for the Tigers. While she can still shoot and score, and still does both, she’s also a floor leader.
“I’ve become more of a playmaker than a scorer this year,” she said.
Coro hit the winning shot against Rangeley and was 11 of 19 for 3-pointers in Augusta, on her way to being named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Carrier’s defense on Rangeley’s Taylor Esty in the fourth quarter was also crucial in the win. Keely Taylor scored 14 points in the win, and when interviewed on television after the game, she talked up her teammates.
“I think it’s sincere,” LeBlanc said. “When somebody does something well, they all support them and congratulate them.”
Forest Hills will be facing a Washburn team that has won the last three Class D titles and is the favorite in Saturday’s game.
“We’ve been studying them, but we know anything can happen,” Carrier said. “It’s going to be hard, and we all realize that, but we want to just give it our best effort.”