SOUTH CHINA — The most inspirational high school basketball team in the state is not playing in the tournament. The Erskine Academy girls basketball team’s season ended last week with a 33-32 win over Mt. Blue. What the Eagles accomplished in January will have far more impact than playing to put a Gold Ball in the trophy case.

The Eagles took part in the American Cancer Society Coaches vs Cancer shooting challenge. The team took pledges for every free throw or 3-pointer made in January, and ended up raising $10,000. Out of 323 high schools in the nation that took part, the Erskine girls basketball team raised the most money. According to American Cancer Society spokesman Brian Casalinova, it wasn’t even close.

“This community was competing against schools with three or four thousand students,” Casalinova said. “It was quite impressive. I worked with a lot of schools that had more games and four times the amount of students (as Erskine). They didn’t just finish No. 1, they finished No. 1 with about a $3,000 gap between No. 1 and the second place school. I’ve worked on Coaches vs Cancer for five years. I’ve worked with schools all over New England, and no single school, college or high school, has raised this amount of money in a single campaign.”

On Tuesday, Casalinova was at Erskine Academy to honor the team at a presentation during the school’s winter carnival celebration. The ceremonial big check was presented for the American Cancer Society, and Casalinova gave the Eagles a trophy to signify their efforts. A banner for the gym wall is coming, too, he said.

The effort was close to the team’s heart. Coach Donar’s mother, Susan Donar, died last October after a long battle with cancer.

“I’m 6 feet, 4 inches, and every inch is filled with one big mama’s boy. I’ve never took that as a detriment. Certainly, with the passing of Mom, I knew we could be doing more,” Donar said. “You hear of all the kids in school and community members that are affected by cancer. Just because we’re a little school in South China, Maine doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference. We gave the nation a $10,000 reason why we can come together and do what we can.”

For the team’s Coaches vs Cancer game on Jan. 25, the Eagles wore pink t-shirts in warmups, and many players adorned the backs of the shirts with the names of people they knew fighting cancer. Grandparents, uncles, friends, acquaintances. Some players had more than one name of their back.

“We all played for those people,” senior Lauren Wood said.

The Erskine girls had taken part in the annual Coaches vs Cancer game over the last few years, Casalinova said, raising between $300 and $800. When Donar said that this year, the team would like to do more, Casalinova suggested the free throw and 3-point challenge. The answer was an immediate yes, Donar said. Casalinova helped the team set up a web site and gave them tips. Then, it took off.

“I just knew, with the passing of Mom, we could do more,” Donar said. “The first donation came on New Year’s Eve, and we didn’t stop until the 31st of January.”

When it started, pledges amounted to $18 per free throw. By the end of the month, the Eagles had earned so many pledges, each made shot was worth over 50 bucks.

“I feel like there was more pressure. Each free throw was valued,” junior Lydia Boucher said.

“There was a lot of money on the line with those free throws, but I just tried to keep the grand scheme in mind with the girls. Listen, the free throws are nice and important, but we’re trying to do anything that we can to raise as much money as possible. Promoting the cancer research and awareness is the ultimate goal,” Donar said.

With the money being raised, the Eagles’ focused sharpened. In January, the team’s free throw percentage improved by around 14 percent, he said.

“I’ll tell you what, there was more asking for practice time to practice their free throws than any years prior,” Donar said.

During Tuesday’s presentation, the team thanked the entire community. All the people who made donations made it all possible.

“It’s really nice to do something for a great cause. Everyone’s affected by it,” senior Bailey Cloutier said.

Added Boucher: “The community can come together for such a great cause.”

What the Eagles accomplished won’t be immediately felt. Raising money doesn’t come with the instant gratification and the cheers of a big win. But that $10,000 will go into cancer research, and somebody whose name is on the back of a player’s t-shirt will be helped, maybe even cured.

That’s the victory the Erskine girls basketball team earned.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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