With every game the Messalonskee High School boys basketball team plays, the legend of Shrew grows.

Shrew dives across the baseline, extended full Superman in flight, saving the Messalonskee possession. Shrew fights off opponents four or five inches taller than he to grab rebounds. Shrew takes an elbow to the head early in the third quarter, goes back to the locker room to get cleaned up and bandaged, and returns before the quarter is over, to a standing ovation from the Eagles Nest, Messalonskee’s energetic student fans.

Shrew, also known as senior James Kouletsis, is the kind of player they’ll be talking about at Messalonskee for years.

“He’s going to be the guy, when future generations come into this program, who’s going to be the next James Kouletsis? He’ll be a guy we pull tape on, and say, ‘Guys, this is what we want to see,’ ” Messalonskee boys basketball coach Peter McLaughlin said.

With Kouletsis treating his body like a basketball rag doll, setting the pace for the Eagles, Messalonskee (14-5) is in the Class A North semifinals. The No. 5 seed, Messalonskee takes on rival Skowhegan at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday night.

The bloody head occurred early in the third quarter of Messalonskee’s regional quarterfinal win over Gardiner last Saturday night. Gardiner guard Isaiah Magee drove to the hoop, Kouletsis was late in blocking his way, and took an unintentional elbow just above the left eye.

“At first I just thought I was hit, I was staggering for a little bit, and I looked down at my hands and they were completely blood,” Kouletsis said.

“That was definitely a scary moment. We’re looking at one of our top two players possibly being out the entirety of the second half,” McLaughlin added. “The entire time we’re standing under the basket, I’m looking at James, he’s calm. ‘Coach, I’m fine. Coach, I’m OK.'”

Kouletsis went to the locker room with team trainer Nick Thompson. As he walked behind the Messalonskee bench, fans serenaded Kouletsis with a “Shrew Kouletsis!” chant.

Oh, yes, the odd nickname. Kouletsis said the origin isn’t as interesting as most hope.

When Kouletsis was a sophomore and first-year member of Messalonskee’s varsity basketball team, seniors Nick Mayo, Sawyer Michaud and Trevor Gettig tried to create nicknames for every member of the team. When it came time to tag Kouletsis with one, they were stuck. Nothing came to them.

Then one day Mayo and Michaud were relaxing, watching National Geographic. A shrew came on the screen, and the nickname was born.

“They went, ‘Wow, that looks a lot like Kouletsis.’ At first, it was kind of weird. I just grew into it, and it stuck,” Kouletsis said. “It’s a little unique. It’s kind of just part of me now.”

Kouletsis embraces it, even making @ShrewKouletsis his Twitter handle. There is no taming this Shrew. Once Thompson stopped the bleeding and got his head bandaged, Kouletsis returned to Saturday’s game in the final minute of the third quarter. Kouletsis replaced the bandages as he sweat through them, then took seven stitches to close the wound, right at the Augusta Civic Center.

“We didn’t even go to the hospital,” Kouletsis said.

On his right leg, just below the knee, Kouletsis wears a pad covered in sticky tape. The pad was created by Thompson and protects a bump, the result of Kouletsis’ never-ending quest to dive for every lose ball and go after every rebound.

“I just kept hitting it and hitting it,” Kouletsis said of his leg. “I was limping around in games, so Nick just built me this pad. Wrapped in sticky tape. It’s pretty much a knee pad, just little lower.”

That pad has been put to good use many times this season, most recently in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over Gardiner, when Kouletsis dove to save a ball going out of bounds by bouncing it off a Gardiner player. The play was key to the second quarter, in which the Eagles rallied from an early 11-point deficit to take the lead for good.

“Again, that’s him. Heady player, with reckless abandon with his body. Most high school players wouldn’t have that mindset, to understand there was a Gardiner player behind him, to understand he has the ability to make that play,” McLaughlin said. “That’s what we love about him. That was a big play, because it gave us the energy to fuel that comeback.”

Kouletsis averages just under 12 points per game, with 4.5 assists and four steals per game. The eye-popping stat, however, is his rebounds. At just 5-foot-11 and 145-pounds after a big meal, Kouletsis averages just over nine rebounds per game, putting him among the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s top big men and rebounding leaders.

“I think the team settles in when James is out there. He’s the calm of the storm. When things are going wrong, he’s a guy I can look at and say, ‘James, it’s time for you to take over this game,'” McLaughlin said. “When you start filling up a stat sheet that way, your impact on the game is so much more than on the scoreboard. Night in, night out, he guards one of the other team’s best players. We rely on him to do a lot of things people don’t notice unless you watch us every night.”

Playing basketball with this abandon was an evolution for Kouletsis, who figured out when he got to high school that if he wanted to get on the court, he’d have to play better defense.

“When I was a lot younger, I’ll be the first to say it, I was a complete ball hog. I didn’t like to pass. I didn’t like to play defense. I just liked to play straight up offense,” Kouletsis said. “When I got into high school, I started to play more defense. On the varsity team, if you’re just playing offense, you’re not going to play. I became smarter as I grew up, saying, if you play defense more and better, you’ll get the ball back more and you can play offense.”

McLaughlin saw the love for basketball begin to emerge from Kouletsis when he was a sophomore, swinging from junior varsity to varsity. A soccer standout at Messalonskee, Kouletsis set the school scoring record last fall. McLaughlin now sees the same passion Kouletsis brings to the pitch on the court. Last season the Eagles had to fill the minutes lost to the graduation of six seniors, but Kouletsis quickly filled the void. He played 25 minutes against Nokomis, then 32 minutes against Gardiner.

“That was the moment of, James Kouletsis is ready to be in this role. We had some seniors hurting. He said Coach, I’m ready. From that point on, he’s been that player for us, averaging close to 30 minutes per game this year,” McLaughlin said.

When Messalonskee’s run in the tournament is over, Kouletsis’ competitive basketball career ends. He plans to attend the University of Maine and study engineering.

“I got some offers to play D3 soccer or basketball, but in the long run doing that will be a lot better,” he said.

In the meantime, the legend of Shrew grows.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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