Waynflete’s Dominick Campbell, left and Winthrop’s Ryan Baird vie for the opening tipoff at the start of last Saturday night’s Class C South regional final at the Augusta Civic Center. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

 

Ryan Baird began the first quarter in a uniform. He began the second in a t-shirt and an air cast.

It was a significant blow for the Winthrop boys basketball team last Saturday night at the Augusta Civic Center, already mired in a fierce Class C South regional final against the one team it had never beaten in tournament play. The Waynflete Flyers, blessed with size and skill up and down the floor, against an undermanned Ramblers squad whose roster underwent significant overhaul after winning the state championship last year.

What happened next you already know. Winthrop bested Waynflete in what can best be described as a defensive struggle, the Ramblers claiming their third regional title in a four-year span.

Three years ago, I’m not sure this would have happened. It’s a scenario I posed to Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur — after the nets had been cut down, after players emptied out of the locker room, after he’d entertained all his other media obligations. I cornered MacArthur against a concrete wall and asked him about 2017.

You probably remember 2017, too.

One of the best Winthrop teams ever to stroll onto the hardwood, playing for the Class C state championship against a powerhouse George Stevens Academy team in Bangor, when star guard Jacob Hickey landed awkwardly early in the first half.

Hickey gutted his way through the rest of the game, a shell of his former self, trying to will himself — and Winthrop — to a championship. It never happened.

The Ramblers couldn’t overcome the shock of what had happened early that night. Beaten on a buzzer-beater by George Stevens, it was the very definition of a promise unfulfilled.

Three years later, in a part of the Augusta Civic Center fans never see, where the facility’s age shows best, MacArthur cut me off before I could even get started.

“Jacob Hickey wasn’t hurt,” MacArthur said, in the same tone he’s used countless times in three years to address that night.

I did what I’ve probably been best at during my career as a sports writer: I ignored him.

“Yes, he was,” I insisted.

MacArthur cracked a smile. He’s good at that. Almost as good as he is at drawing up plays on a grease board, at finding creative ways to implement new defensive wrinkles, at inspiring a group of young men to believe winter after winter they’ve got what it takes to win it all.

That behind us, we got down to brass tacks. We got down to the wonderful symmetry that is sports at all levels. Three years ago, Hickey is injured and the Ramblers never recover. Saturday night at the ACC, Baird is nearly carried off the court and watches the entire second half from the bench.

This time Winthrop overcomes.

I’m fascinated by what makes successful high school athletes tick. I want to know what’s transpired in four years, what’s changed enough that players who were freshmen and rattled when Hickey went down are now seniors and unfettered by such a literal and figurative blow in the biggest game they’ve played all season.

“I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe I need to sleep on that,” MacArthur said. “Looking back, there’s a lot of things from that first state game (in 2017) that I learned. I was young and I hadn’t been in that situation — timeouts, sideline plays, the situation with Jake getting hurt. I probably should have pulled him off, went and got medical attention and see if we could have gotten him back before the end.

“I don’t know.”

One difference MacArthur pointed to was the injury itself. Baird’s diagnosis was almost instant, with MacArthur told almost immediately the 6-foot-5 forward was finished.

That meant it was time for whatever sports cliche you like best — ‘Next man up,’ ‘Teamwork will make your dream work’ or ‘Who’s next?’ — to intervene.

Three years ago, Winthrop collectively tightened under the stress of having to carry on with Hickey not at 100 percent and crumbled.

“They’re kids. That’s what happens sometimes,” MacArthur said.

That’s not what happened Saturday night. This time, the Ramblers galvanized.

Perhaps they were emboldened by past experience on a big stage. Maybe there were enough other quality players in the lineup to carry on without missing a step. Or it could well have been that others were simply eager to seize on an opportunity to shine themselves — the way Cam Hachey, Gavin Perkins, Noah Grube or Jevin Smith did on Saturday night.

“We preach a lot in our program about the dynamics of team,” MacArthur said. “Everyone will say Ryan’s our best player, and he is. But we’re a really balanced team this year, and we’ve said from Day 1 that it’s about balance for us. Losing Ryan, I don’t think the kids were like ‘Oh my god, we just lost our best player.’ We just lost one of our cogs in the whole puzzle.”

Three years later, the program wasted no time putting those pieces back in working order to earn a shot at winning Winthrop’s fifth Class C State championship this weekend.

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