Members of the Forest Hills boys basketball team wait for a game to begin against Rangeley last month in Augusta.

When he was hired as the Temple Academy boys basketball coach in April, Scott Corey was looking forward to getting to know his players and learning the ins and outs of a new league. Corey coached the girls basketball team at Erskine Academy for 19 years, and knew everything he needed to know about the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. The East/West Conference and Class D basketball was foreign territory.

As preseason practices began, Corey learned just how different basketball in Maine’s smallest high schools can be, when teams he expected Temple to face suddenly bowed out of the 2018-19 season due to a lack of players.

“Our schedule changed four times in three weeks,” Corey said. “Phil (Temple athletic director Phil Hubbard) was scrambling right up until a week or two before the season.”

Schedule uncertainty, long road trips, and more neutral site regular season games. Central Maine’s small contingent of Class D schools tackle issues the bigger schools would rarely consider to keep their hoops heartbeat strong.

“For the last three to five years, we always have to have schedule contingency plans just in case,” said Anthony Amero, the boys basketball coach and athletic director at Jackman’s Forest Hills High School.

With no boys basketball teams at Highview Christian, North Haven, Islesboro or AR Gould, and no girls team at Greater Portland Christian this season, Class D schools were hustling to fill an 18-game schedule. At Forest Hills, Amero picked up a third boys game against East/West Conference rival Vinalhaven, and a third girls game against Valley. Both Forest Hills teams also played a doubleheader last Saturday.

“I never thought we’d play doubleheader basketball games, and we’ve done it a few times now,” Amero, who is now in his 22nd season at Forest Hills, said. “You have to ask yourself, is it healthier to play two games in one day, or back-to-back nights on the road?”

In Class D, whether it’s North or South, the miles between gyms are great. For the most part, the smallest schools are in the most remote and rural areas. Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference rivals Waterville, Winslow, Messalonskee and Lawrence are within miles of each other. Those road games are measured in stop lights, not miles. When Corey coached at Erskine, a long trip was from the South China campus to Oxford Hills, approximately 150 miles round-trip. In Class D South, a 150 round-trip for a game is on the short side of normal. Next Monday, Corey will take Temple to Vinalhaven, one of the road trips that requires a ferry ride.

“I never rode a boat to go anywhere at Erskine,” Corey said.

Rangeley’s Nolan Boone (11) battles for the rebound with Forest Hills’ Brandon Gilboe during a game last month in Augusta.

Tucked in northern Somerset County not far from the Quebec border, the shortest road trip on Forest Hills’ schedule is the hour journey south on Route 201 to Bingham to play Valley. To play Greater Portland Christian at South Portland High School next Monday, the Tigers will travel 336 miles. A trip to conference rival Rangeley is 232 miles round-trip for the Tigers.

“Our average trip is three hours. You spend a lot of time on the bus with the kids. We get to know each other real well,” Amero said.

A private school, Temple Academy travels via van for road games, not school bus. Although Temple is in Waterville, its Class D opponents are scattered around the state. The Bereans have played against Seacoast Christian in Eliot (252 miles round-trip), on the border with New Hampshire in York County, and at Jonesport-Beals High School (272 miles round-trip) in coastal Washington County. Along with the upcoming ferry ride to Vinalhaven, Temple has road games at North Yarmouth Academy, Freeport to face Pine Tree Academy, and Rangeley yet to play.

With so much travel at the Class D level, it’s not unusual for regular-season games to be played at a neutral site. Of the four Class D schools in the Morning Sentinel’s coverage area, all but Temple has at least one neutral site game. Forest Hills will face Seacoast Christian and Vinalhaven at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. Valley will face Seacoast Christian at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Rangeley has already played neutral site games at Cony High School in Augusta, St. Dominic’s High in Auburn, CMCC, and the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf. The Lakers have neutral site games scheduled over the final weeks of the regular season at Hebron Academy, the Augusta Civic Center and the University of Maine at Farmington.

Neutral site games not only help limit outrageously long road trips, they give Class D schools an opportunity to play on a larger court. Many schools, like Forest Hills, have a home court shorter than the 84 feet of a standard high school gym. Neutral sites are played on either the 84-foot court, or the 94-foot college regulation size, in alignment with all high school tournament games at the Augusta Civic Center, Cross Center in Bangor, and Cross Arena or Expo in Portland.

“Ninety-four feet is a lot bigger than my gym,” Amero said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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