Members of the AAU Maine Basketball Club, from left, Leah Britting, Layla Facchiano, Caitlyn McCoy, Kennedy Lampert, Rachel Penny, Gabrielle Tibbetts, Cali Pomerleau and Brooklyne Choate, stand with coach Kristina Blais, far right, and Orlando Magic players, back, from left, James Ennis III, Khem Birch and Karim Mane. Submitted photo

Taking a girls AAU basketball team all the way to Florida to play hoop at a higher level was not a spur-of-the-moment decision by Maine Basketball Club coach Kristina Blais and one player’s devoted dad.

The pair carefully considered the endeavor and shared the idea with the parents of eight players before they headed for the Sunshine State in mid-November. The tightening of COVID-19 restrictions prematurely ended Lewiston-based Maine Basketball Club’s (MBC) season and played a role in the pair’s decision to head south with the team.

Travis Penny, a mortgage broker from Topsham, didn’t want his daughter and the team sitting around for a month and a half. The athletes are now staying at Champions Gate, Florida, which is a housing condominium community.

“I had to figure something out,” he said. “I had just been in Florida for a business trip. I could see it was wide open for what we were looking to do. We recommended coming down here and we had a couple of conversations and set the trip up, and the parents were all on board, and I would say within 48 hours, maybe 72 hours, everybody was like, ‘Let’s go.’

“I am a sports lover. Baseball and football are my first choices, but my daughter, Rachel, navigated to basketball, so I will do whatever needs to be done to get her going in that. We came to Florida to keep on playing, and obviously COVID restrictions had a lot to do with it and why we couldn’t play.”

“He is changing my daughter’s (Leah Britting) life,” William Britting said of Penny in an email to the Sun Journal. “So he had a crazy idea. He sat down with their coach, Kristina Blais, and said, ‘What if I took you and all these kids to Florida to keep their dream alive?’ This was on a Tuesday night. That Sunday eight girls, the coach and Travis left in two cars to Florida to stay in a rented townhouse and train and compete as much as possible.” 

Blais, a Lewiston High School graduate who played at Central Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine, said the coronavirus wasn’t the only reason why the team has spent the past couple of weeks training in the Florida sun.

“We just want to give the kids an opportunity to continue playing,” Blais, who is also an assistant women’s basketball coach at CMCC, said.But the girls made so much progress in the fall that we just couldn’t have them sitting around. The plan was to come down here and train 24-7. We made it very clear that this is not a vacation This is a business trip. This is boot camp. We always wanted to go out of state and do tournaments.”

Members of the Maine Basketball Club, from left, Leah Britting, Layla Facchiano, Kennedy Lampert, Gabrielle Tibbetts, Cali Pomerleau, Rachel Penny, Caitlyn McCoy and Brooklyne Choate, display a trophy during a visit to Florida to compete against a variety of teams. Submitted photo

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

The MBC team — which is comprised of Kennedy Lampert (Topsham), Leah Britting (Auburn), Layla Facchiano (Auburn) , Rachel Penny (Topsham), Brooklyne Choate (Topsham), Caitlyn McCoy (Greene), Cali Pomerleau (Topsham) and Gabrielle Tibbetts (Paris) — has been introduced to a professional strength coach, met NBA players and played in a variety tournaments. 

The players continue their classroom studies through remote learning, and they learn the value of nutrition by preparing home-cooked meals with Blais as well as practicing COVID-19 protocols.

“Basketball is my main hobby and it is so important to play for me because it is the thing I love and is my passion,” shooting guard Leah Britting said. “Not playing (basketball) for so long is just terrifying. Taking that away was just awful. We couldn’t pass on the opportunity to play in Florida.”

Britting said the competition was intense and Floridian teams play an aggressive version of basketball, which was a welcome challenge for her.

“I have learned a lot about responsibilities here,” Britting said.

Those responsibilities include completing her homework and maintaining a healthy diet.

“Florida is great — much different weather in Florida, obviously, compared to Maine,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like winter at all.”

For guard Layla Facchiano of Auburn, the benefits of the trip are impossible to ignore.

“I think I have definitely gotten stronger and better,” Facchiano said. “I think seeing how aggressive other teams have been, and the competition is way different, I think it helps us see what is coming in high school.”

Shooting guard Rachel Penny of Topsham has been playing for MBC in Lewiston for the past three years.

“I think a lot the kids aren’t getting this opportunity right now,” Penny said. “It is something that, if we got the chance, why wouldn’t we take it?”

Penny was expecting the competition to be stiff because of Florida is more populated than Maine, and that means the Sunshine State has larger talent pool.

A strength and conditioning coach gives instructions during the MBC’s sand workout in Orlando. Submitted photo

“Down here, it is pretty much we have to get ready for every team,” she said.

“We have beaten a couple of boys teams. We have beaten a couple of high school teams,” Blais said. “These girls are only 13 years old and in the eighth grade, so it has been pretty incredible to watch them grow. I think we only lost a total of two games and it was to two very talented high school teams.” 

Travis Penny said people have been eager to accommodate the visiting Maine team.

“It is a whole other level,” Penny said. “Actually, it all just fell into place. We picked out a few tournaments online. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to put it together. The contacts down here have been pretty impressive for a short period of time. We’ve gone from practicing on outdoor courts to having a session with an NBA trainer with two NBA guys.” 

Eighth-grader Caitlyn McCoy was named to the all-tournament team after competing in a recent basketball tournament in Florida Submitted photo

After the MBC’s first tournament, a referee became interested in the team from Maine, and he hooked up MBC with an athletic director, who had access to a gym, and then offered MBC the opportunity to play in a tournament the official was running.

COVID-19 WATCH

Blais and Penny take the coronavirus threat seriously and continue to make sure their athletes follow CDC guidelines to prevent transmission and infection in sunny Florida.

“I just wanted to say we are not taking COVID lightly at all,” Blais said. “It is very serious all over the world right now and it has affected people that we love deeply, and we are being extremely diligent down here — wearing masks everywhere we go, not doing too much out in the public, just sticking to workouts and training.

“We are going to take a test as soon as we get into Maine and quarantine as need be.”

Travis Penny, who is responsible for recording and photographing the team and posting their progress on Facebook (at https://www.facebook.com/KristinasBootCamp2020), said the players have pulled together to make this a successful trip. They are planning to return to Maine on Dec. 14.

“They are all 13 years old, and this is something that they wouldn’t probably do until college,” Penny said. “They are all doing pretty good. I am actually proud of how well they have responded to this (trip).”

Blais said it has been rewarding to see how much the players have matured and improved as athletes the past few weeks. 

“This is a life-changing experience for the girls and they have worked extremely hard,” she said. “Before leaving, they were saying how much they missed tournaments and being out of state and staying with teammates. With remote learning, being away from friends at school and seasons getting canceled, I feel for these kids. With winter coming, it is so important for parents to check in on their kids’ mental health. We felt as though this was the best opportunity for their basketball career and their mental health.

“Their IQ, confidence, and game play has increased significantly, and they are taking full advantage of this opportunity. They’ve met some friends down here from games and we are incredibly grateful for all of the generous people we’ve met — people we will remember forever.”

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