JACKMAN — Shanna Allen and her 12-year-old daughter, Grace, climbed the 5-foot-high snowbank in front of their house. Each held the corner of a white bedsheet. They took careful steps in the snow, letting the sheet unfurl between them.

Painted on the sheet was an important message: “We love the Tigers,” with a heart standing in for the word “love.”

Beneath that was “#1” with a picture of a gold basketball, the prize that’s been on Jackman’s collective mind all week. The Allens had to wait to hang the banner, though.

“I can’t find the staple gun,” Shanna said.

On Saturday afternoon at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, the 21-0 Forest Hills High School boys basketball team will face Schenck (14-7) of East Millinocket for the Class D boys basketball championship. Last Saturday, the Tigers won their fourth Class D South regional title since 2012. A win Saturday gives the Tigers their third gold ball since 2013. Since 2012, only Class A Hampden has played in more boys basketball state championship games than Forest Hills.

U.S. Route 201 is the main drag through Jackman and is the town’s central nervous system. At this time of year, the sound of snowmobiles is near-constant background noise. It’s not unusual to see snowmobiles parked alongside cars at businesses throughout the town. It’s also not unusual to see signs wishing the basketball team well at every business.

Just down the street from Allens’ home, a grinning tiger statue stood roadside. Basketball has as tight a grip on Jackman as winter.

“They’re good kids. We’ve had good teams before, but they were cocky,” said Glenn Bishop, owner of Bishop’s Motel. “They don’t care about the individual score. They care about the team score. I think this might be the best team we’ve had.”

“Almost every day, you get approached by someone wishing you good luck,” senior Brandon Gilboe said.

The Forest Hills High School basketball team celebrates with the younger classes during a pep rally Friday at Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Jackman might be the most isolated town in Maine. With a year-round population around 850, Jackman is in the northern corner of Somerset County. It’s the halfway point between the state capital, Augusta, and Quebec City. The nearest city of any size, St.-Georges, Quebec, is about 40 miles north. In Maine, you need to drive 72 miles south on U.S. 201 to Skowhegan before you hit a traffic light.

Between Jackman and Skowhegan, there are a few wide spots in the road: West Forks, Bingham and Solon. It’s mostly forest. Jackman’s economy is based on tourism, the logging industry and the nearby border with Canada. For many who live there, the isolation is a selling point.

“I’ve lived here for seven years. It’s quiet, but it gets busy during the tourist season,” said Autumn Easterbrook, who was waiting tables Thursday at Mama Bear’s restaurant.

A student growing up in Jackman or Moose River — population 218, directly north of Jackman — will attend the same school from kindergarten until he or she receives a high school diploma. Forest Hills High School makes up one wing of the building, a hallway and four classrooms.

“We have 37 students in the high school this year,” said Anthony Amero, a teacher, athletic director, and boys basketball coach. “We’re as small as we’ve ever been.”

Shanna Allen, a Forest Hills superfan, talks about this year’s basketball team Thursday as autographed shirts hang on display in glass at the bakery at Mountain Country Market in Jackman. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The boys basketball team at Forest Hills has a roster of 10, including one eighth-grader. The Tigers enter the state championship game undefeated at 21-0. The success of this season can be traced back to summer time pickup games on the court at Jackman’s Armand Pomerleau Park. The park is on the shore of Big Wood Lake and across the street from Shanna Allen’s home.

“They’re there all summer,” Allen said. “I’ll see them dribbling two basketballs to work on their skills.”

The pickup games usually begin around 6 p.m., when the Tigers are free from a day working a summer job.

“It gets just as competitive as a game in the season,” junior Hunter Cuddy said.

Former Tigers will play and push the current players on the Pomerleau court. Once, Gilboe got into a game with a vacationing high school player from Texas.

“He destroyed me. He could hit a baseline jumper like I’ve never seen,” Gilboe said.

The point is, the experience made Gilboe a better player. All the Tigers improve by playing the pickup games. With less structure comes more innovation.

“You’ve got to bring your own swag to the game,” Cuddy said.

Added senior Jakob Rivas: “We get to know each other’s abilities. We learn how to play with each other.”

Forest Hills alumnus Jack Hoyt carries in the Gold Ball from the 2015 championship team during a pep rally Friday at Forest Hills Consolidated School in Jackman. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Forest Hills basketball is a town uniter in Jackman. Amero estimated the school’s small gymnasium seats 250 people. On game night it’s standing room only.

“What else do we have? We don’t have a football team. We don’t have a soccer team,” said Bishop, who tries not to miss a home game. “These boys are easy to root for. Some kids, you’ll see helping out around town, carrying somebody’s groceries or something.”

The latest copy of Jackman Matters, the local paper, offers proof of Bishop’s assessment on the front page. On the right, there’s a story on the Tigers win over Temple Academy in the Class D South regional final. On the left, there’s a story on Forest Hills basketball players Cuddy and Parker Desjardins performing 6,000-plus hours of service to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. There’s a responsibility that comes with being a Forest Hills basketball player, Cuddy said.

“You get attention at a young age. We’ve had Amero from a young age. He’s talking to you, getting you excited to get to high school and play ball,” Cuddy said.

Throughout town, light poles are adorned with artwork depicting the jerseys of each Forest Hills player. In Kori’s Kap Bakery and Deli, adjacent to Mountain Country Supermarket, framed T-shirts autographed by members of Forest Hills’ three state championship-winning basketball teams — the 1997 girls, 2013 boys and 2015 boys — hang on the wall of the dining room.

A snowmobiler rides by Mama Bear’s Restaurant on Thursday as a sign encouraging the Forest Hills High School Tigers illuminates the window on Main Street in Jackman. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“Basketball is the thing in this town,” Allen said, taking a break from working the deli counter. She wore an orange T-shirt to match one of the team’s colors. “The town goes crazy. It’s something we can do together.”

The Tigers are always accompanied by a strong contingent of fans who make the two-hour-plus trek to Augusta for the regional tournament. The team expects a large group of fans to make it to Bangor on Saturday. Somebody has to stay behind and watch the deli. Allen knows she won’t be doing it.

“You make the schedule, and that’s how it goes,” she said.

At the Northland Hotel bar, bartender Casey Hawes expected a big crowd Saturday to watch the championship game on Maine Public Television. The Northland has seven televisions, and Hawes expects the game to be on every one of them. On Thursday, Jim Stickney enjoyed his lunch and a beer, the only patron in the bar at noon. Stickney said he’ll be back at the Northland on Saturday to watch the game.

“They’re real hustlers,” Stickney said of the Tigers. “They’re fast and they can shoot. They can play with any team.”

“They’re our boys,” said Hawes, who moved to Jackman 16 years ago from Old Orchard Beach. “You should’ve seen the parade. Half the bar was outside watching it.”

The parade Hawes referred to was the celebration of the regional title last Saturday. As it approached town, the team bus was met by firetrucks and other emergency vehicles. The lights and sirens caused celebration, not panic. Jackman had seen this before. It hopes to see it again.

Just down the hall from the school’s main office, each of Forest Hills’ three gold balls sits in its own trophy case. They are joined by a plaque honoring the four seniors from the 2015 boys team. The quartet known as the Fab Four — Tanner Daigle, Brandon Ouellette, Ryan Petrin and Matt Turner — compiled a 79-9 record playing for the Tigers, amassing 3,629 points, three regional titles and two state championships among them. That is the standard for which the current Tigers strive.

“Everyone in town, they just know us by our faces,” Rivas said. “We love playing for them.”

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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