When Messalonskee High School boys basketball practice needed some energy, a spark, coach Peter McLaughlin would often go to the same line.
“He’d tell us, ‘I’m going to the state championship game, and if you guys want, you can come with me,'” senior Nate Violette said.
A season with high expectations started slowly, before McLaughlin’s not-so-subtle prodding took hold. Messalonskee peaked in February, not December. When it was time for the Class A North tournament, the Eagles were playing their best basketball of the season, winning the region as the No. 5 seed to advance to the state championship game for the first time.
“When we got (to the tournament),” McLaughlin said, “I’ve never been more confident.”
For guiding Messalonskee to the first boys basketball regional title in school history, Peter McLaughlin is the Morning Sentinel Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. Also considered were Tom Simmons, who coached Temple Academy to the tournament for the first time since rejoining Maine Principals’ Association play three years ago, and Ryan Martin of Nokomis, who coached the Warriors to the regional quarterfinals for the first time since 2012.
This past season was McLaughlin’s seventh as Messalonskee’s head coach. In that time, the Eagles have become one of the most consistent winners in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. The 2016-17 season was Messalonskee’s fourth straight with at least 13 victories. That’s marked improvement from McLaughlin’s first two seasons, in which the Eagles won eight games combined.
“You can see it. It’s changed. That evolution, that growth, I can’t put that into words,” McLaughlin said.
“He’s been a huge role model for me,” Messalonskee senior James Kouletsis said of McLaughlin. “All his attention to detail is paying off now.”
The foundation on which McLaughlin has built the Messalonskee boys basketball program is defense. In the Northern A regional, the Eagles held opponents Gardiner, Skowhegan, and Oceanside to just under 48 points per game.
“The intensity he brings on that end (defensive) of the floor is unmatched in the conference,” Kouletsis said.
McLaughlin said the emphasis on defense is easy because the team, particularly senior leaders like Violette, Kouletsis, and Griffin Tuttle, bought in. McLaughlin said there when a moment came up at practice in which he thought he’d have to get on the team, often the seniors did it first, saving the Eagles from a lecture from their coach.
“This was probably the most in tune my senior leadership has been with me. As a coach, you need to know the seniors have the same focus as the coaches,” McLaughlin said. “When you have to constantly get on people, it gets old.”
More than his ability to teach the X’s and O’s of basketball, McLaughlin’s aptitude in forging relationships is his strongest asset as a coach, Violette said.
“Coach has a great ability to bring people together,” Violette said. “Our team was a family. When you have that, basketball is that much easier. You trust each other, and as we start working together, chemistry comes.”
The Eagles entered the season as the KVAC A North favorite, taking first place in the preseason coaches’ poll. McLaughlin said he stressed to his team the attention would only make them need to work harder. Wins in the summer league meant nothing if they didn’t become motivation to improve.
“That’s a great compliment, but we have a job to do,” McLaughlin said. “Every day in practice, we were hungry. If we’ve been labeled the best team in the conference, we’re getting the best from everybody.”
Messalonskee opened the season with two losses in their first three games, and trailed by double digits against Camden Hills in game four. It was halftime of that game when the Eagles regained focus, and started their run to the regional title.
“We really struggled a little bit early,” Kouletsis said.
After the loss to Greely in the state championship game, McLaughlin was disappointed. That night, he spoke with his father, also Peter McLaughlin, who reminded him one game didn’t erase the progress Messalonskee boys basketball program has made.
“He said, ‘If seven years ago when you took over this, did you think you’d play for a state championship?'” McLaughlin said. “It completely flipped me over and got me thinking of the progress of the program.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242