Winthrop High School’s Jevin Smith (24) celebrates with teammate Ian Steele after they defeated Dexter in the Class C state championship game Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The seasons for the Winthrop and Forest Hills boys basketball teams ended the way the previous ones had.

They began, however, under different circumstances.

Well before they lifted Gold Balls on Saturday, the Ramblers and Tigers had holes to fill. And new identities to find. And both coaches acknowledged, despite their programs’ success, that it was hardly a slam dunk that they would.

“I didn’t know what their ceiling was going to be,” Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur said. “…The thing I love about it is, not only did they grow, but the chemistry on the team got so much better toward the end of the season, and that was the difference-maker. When you have good team chemistry, the sky is the limit.”

Up in Jackman, there was a similar dynamic at play.

“You lose three starters off a team, it’s a big rebuild,” coach Anthony Amero said. “We knew we were young overall, but we kind of felt ‘Let’s give the old college try’ this year and really get after it the following season a little bit more. … (But) everyone improved their game a lot quicker than I thought they would.”

The Forest Hills boys basketball team celebrates after beating Machias for the Class D title on Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

The Ramblers had to replace eight seniors, including four starters in Cam Wood, Sam Figueroa, Jared McLaughlin and Beau Brooks. With so many key pieces gone, MacArthur knew he couldn’t just fall back on the same old gameplan.

“This was the first year that we had to meet each other, as a coach and as personnel,” he said. “In the years past … we would tweak or fix a few things that we thought were weaknesses, and we would overcome them and we would become really dominant. This year, there comes a time as a coach where you’ve got to realize the personnel you have may not be ideal for the system you run.”

What he did have, however, was versatility. Jevin Smith could play center or forward. Ryan Baird could play forward or guard. Players like Noah Grube, Ian Steele and Brad Bourne could be used in different ways. So MacArthur got creative. After years of never switching on screens, Winthrop switched routinely this season.

“If we ever switched (before), it was a complete breakdown,” MacArthur said. “We had breakdowns in the backside of our defense (this year), so in order for that to stop, we just started to switch on the weak side of things. That’s how it began, and then we said ‘You know what, this is actually starting to work.’ ”

By tournament time, Winthrop was a team that had not only figured out its new identity, but was thriving on it. The Ramblers allowed an average of only 30 points per postseason game and played better as the pressure rose, erasing halftime deficits before winning the C South final against Waynflete by nine points and the state final against Dexter by 10.

“They did some special things in the tournament with their defense,” MacArthur said. “They really only cared about winning. They didn’t really care how it was done, and that’s another sign of mental toughness, just doing your job and the only thing that matters is the scoreboard.”

Forest Hills had high scorers back in Parker Desjardins and Hunter Cuddy, but with starters Brandon Gilboe, Jakob Rivas and Dalton Gregoire gone, Amero figured running roughshod on D South again would be a tall task.

“I thought we had the best two players in the league,” he said, “The key becomes, can you get other people that can play with those two? They have a different style of play. And defensively, can we stop anybody?”

He saw this season that the Tigers could. Freshman Mason Desjardins emerged as a scorer, junior Joey Poulin stepped up as a 6-foot-3 anchor in the paint, and sophomore Jackman Daigle impressed at forward.

It was looking like Forest Hills had the pieces it needed to win again. And in early January, when Parker Desjardins missed two games with a separated shoulder and the Tigers still beat Temple Academy and Greenville, that notion was confirmed.

“People looked around at each other in the locker room, joking ‘Parker who?’ ” Amero said. “It felt like ‘All right, maybe we’re a little better than we thought we were.’ ”

Forest Hills was a team that thrived on transition and points in the paint last year, but to win this championship, the Tigers let it fly. With Mason Desjardins supplying Forest Hills with a third knockdown shooter, the Tigers torched opponents from behind the arc. In the state final, Parker Desjardins (31 points), Mason Desjardins (18) and Cuddy (16) led the charge as Forest Hills hit a Class D state final record 11 threes in a 69-53 win over Machias.

Now it’s two straight Gold Balls and 44 straight wins for Forest Hills, and Amero said the team is already thinking about adding to those numbers.

“Keep it rolling every year,” he said. “Right now, it hasn’t ended for us. The kids are already looking forward to summer ball, talking about getting in the weight room, doing all the proper things to keep it going.”

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