For high school athletes, the dream of hitting the big shot or scoring the winning goal in the playoffs – or simply being part of an event that draws thousands of fervent fans – can be a strong motivating force.

This year, Maine’s winter sport athletes already know there will be no postseason heroics. Playoffs and championship meets will not be held because of the pandemic. Furthermore, fans won’t be allowed to attend games during the abbreviated regular season, making it a quiet, strange season.

So what is going to drive, motivate and encourage athletes this winter? For those who have known the thrill of the big event and had every reason to expect another crack at a championship, what’s going to push them to shoot a hundred extra jump shots or hustle to a 5:40 a.m. skate on a cold February morning?

‘WE WANT TO HELP THE YOUNGER GUYS’ 

The Scarborough High boys’ hockey team, which reached the Class A final last year, was motivated to get back there again in 2021. The team will not get the chance, however, because there will be no playoffs this winter during the pandemic. From left, seniors Peter O’Brien, Zach Chaisson, Michael Valente and John Valente. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Zach Chaisson knows what it’s like to have a dream realized. So do several of his teammates on the Scarborough High boys’ hockey team. Last season, Scarborough beat Edward Little in the Class A semifinals on Chaisson’s triple-overtime goal and then took unbeaten Lewiston into double overtime at the packed Androscoggin Bank Colisee before losing, thanks in part to twin brothers Michael and John Valente creating the tying goal and a 40-save effort from goalie Peter O’Brien.

“I’m pretty sure it’s almost every hockey kid’s dream to have a goal like that, to have that big situation, and I did dream about that a little bit,” Chaisson, 17, said. “It motivates all of us to keep going, to have that skill, to work hard, so when you have that opportunity, you do take the shot and maybe score that goal.

“It definitely does motivate me to get better, because if I didn’t put in that time and effort, I wouldn’t have that goal.”

In the championship game, it was defenseman Michael Valente who started the play that led to his brother John’s goal that tied the game, 1-1.

“We always practice in the driveway, passing and creating plays, and in that moment everything came together, and we were able to help our team and create a moment we won’t forget,” Michael Valente said.

Michael Valente, 18, said one aspect he’ll especially miss this season is the time normally spent hanging around in the locker room, joking, laughing and bonding as a team. Locker rooms are essentially off limits this year because of the risk of COVID-19 transmission if players are sitting together in close, confined quarters.

Still, there will be moments to cherish this winter. They’ll just be seen by far fewer people.

“It’s making the best out of each game, each practice. I know we’re not playing for anything, but just creating memories is what keeps us motivated to play,” Michael Valente said.

“It’s all about competing, too, in practice,” said O’Brien, 17. In his 10 years of playing goalie, O’Brien said challenging himself on a daily basis has always been a focus – to beat out the other goalies, to stop as many shots as he can.

“This year, it’s just like loving the sport. I’ve grown up playing it. I watch it every night on TV,” O’Brien said. “I live for sports. It keeps me going, keeps me interacting with people.”

O’Brien, the Valentes and Chaisson all talked about how thankful they were to have last season’s memories. They want the next generation of Scarborough skaters to have those, too.

“So leading by example is something we take passion in,” John Valente said. “We want to help the younger guys to have a good future.”

‘IT’S A PRIVILEGE TO PLAY HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS’

Greely senior Camille Clement was a key member of two state championship teams and hoped to make a run at another state title this winter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Few high school athletes have a deeper affinity for tournament week than Camille Clement. The youngest of three standout basketball-playing sisters, the 17-year-old Greely High senior has been intimately involved with Maine’s high school basketball tournament since she was in second grade. That was the year, oldest sister Allie was a breakout freshman star who helped McAuley High win the first of four straight Class A titles from 2011-14.

The 2014 championship win came on Camille’s 11th birthday.

“I remember my sister posting a video of me on Facebook or something and I said that all I wanted for my birthday is for McAuley to win states,” Clement said.

As a player, Clement earned two more birthday championships with Greely, scoring 10 points with five rebounds and two assists as a freshman against Hampden Academy in the 2018 state title game, and following that with 14 points and three steals in another championship game victory against Hampden in 2019.

“My freshman year, the student section sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me and I remember thinking, this is the coolest thing. We’re winning a state title and they’re singing to me,” Clement said.

As much as Clement would have loved one more tourney trip, she says it won’t be hard to find motivation this season. She has personal goals to pursue as she prepares to play in college at Northeastern. She also wants her play to pay homage to those who have supported her.

“Just for me, it’s just about continuing to better myself and I’m very competitive, so any chance for any type of competition, I’m going to want to be involved,” Clement said.

“And seeing the effect this has taken across the community – and for those who have had their season’s taken away – it makes you realize even more, it’s a privilege to play high school sports,” she continued. “We’re doing this because we want to do this. We’re not playing because we have to. For me, being able to represent Greely – I’ve had so many great experiences – I want to give it back any way I can.”

‘WE’RE GETTING OUTSIDE AND STAYING ACTIVE’

Windham High’s Sarah Hare skis down the course at Shawnee Peak on her way to the Class A giant slalom state championship in 2020. Robin Leavitt Photography

As a sophomore, Sarah Hare of Windham was the 2020 Class A giant slalom champion, so she had high hopes coming into this winter.

Sarah Hare

The pandemic changed that, of course. Until just last week, Windham couldn’t even hold team practices because Cumberland County was in a yellow zone.

What hasn’t changed is her desire to get better.

“I guess this year will definitely be more of a training year, working on the basic skills and improving on things that you need to, because we won’t necessarily be doing a lot of racing,” she said. “I guess they haven’t decided yet on states and stuff like that. So this will be a year of improving and working with our coaches and teammates, trying to figure out ways to become a better skier.”

She also has another motivation. Her father, Lucas, is the Eagles’ first-year head coach. He’s also been there for her in the past, encouraging her to do her best. Now she wants to show him what she’s learned.

“He’s always been that extra coach, pushing me, giving me extra tips in my free skiing, taking me to do those extra runs that will benefit me in the long run,” she said. “He has been a very helpful and big influence in my skiing.”

While the Eagles couldn’t hold in-person practices until just recently, after the Maine Principals’ Association revised its policy regarding the color-coded system used by the Maine Department of Education, the virtual training sessions proved to be interesting at the Hare household.

“We’re usually in different rooms,” said Sarah Hare, who also plays field hockey for the Eagles. “So that I have to participate with it, too.”

Getting together at Shawnee Peak for practices has opened up a social network for Hare, 16.

“School is different this year, so you’re not getting to see the friends you normally would see,” she said. “It’s nice to go out and do something with everyone that you normally would be with. We’re getting outside and staying active.”

‘WE MAKE THE LAST ONE COUNT’

Portland High senior Amanda Kabantu is heading to Bentley University on a basketball scholarship.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

When Portland High’s girls’ basketball team lost a second-half lead in the AA North final to defending champ Oxford Hills, “it was heartbreaking,” Amanda Kabantu recalls. So she set an immediate goal.

“I knew we had to move on and think about the future. Just instantly,” said Kabantu, 18. And the thought was direct. Portland High had an even better chance of ascending the mountain in 2020-21, with both Kabantu and her first cousin, Gemima Motema, a pair of first-team all-defensive SMAA picks coming back.

“I was really looking forward to this year, having the tournament and all that,” said Kabantu, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who moved with her sister, Davina Kabantu, and Motema to Portland prior to her freshman year.

Many athletes talk with heartfelt emotion about how an athletic team is a family. For Kabantu, the feeling is intensified. She had played basketball with her sister and Motema for “as long as I can remember.” And basketball has been both an entrée to school and community and a safe place for her to show her effervescent personality.

She is not shy about saying that “it is actually really sad,” that the pandemic has wiped out the postseason and the ability for fans to come. She’s a fan herself. She said over the holiday she was wistfully thinking about past years when she and her friends would spend all day at the Portland Expo watching the holiday tournament, “and now we’d be looking forward to going to (Cross Insurance Arena) and playing in front of all those people that took time to drive all the way downtown to see us.”

But Kabantu is equally happy she will have a senior season, albeit different than planned. She can play one more season with her cousin before Motema heads to Northeastern and Kabantu to Bentley, both on basketball scholarships.

Her motivation stems from what she’s formed through basketball and what she wishes to carry forward. Memories. Positive memories.

“You know what it feels like? I’m really obsessed with professional basketball, so it feels like when those great players are retiring and playing their last game. That’s what it feels like.

“We’ve had those great memories, so we make the last one count.”

‘TRYOUTS WERE NO EASIER THIS YEAR’

Thornton Academy senior Dylan Griffin helped the Trojans advance to the Class AA state championship game last winter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Upset in the Class AA regional finals a sophomore. Coming up one point shy in the Class AA state final as a junior after a thrilling regional final win against South Portland. Of course Dylan Griffin was thinking about winning a state championship this year with his Thornton Academy basketball teammates.

“Absolutely. Early on in the tryouts and early on in practice, (Coach Bob) Davies always instills that in us. We feel like we could do it every year,” said Griffin, 17, a powerful 6-foot-6 player with soft hands and polished big-man post moves.

But Griffin, like his teammate Payton Jones a first-team all-SMAA choice in 2019-20, said adjusting to a year without playoffs won’t be hard. He has the personal goal of continuing to impress the several Division III coaches (in Maine and out-of-state) who are recruiting him.

“But more than what it might be for me at college next year, it’s about this year with my team,” Griffin said, citing two primary motivators.

First, Davies still has the same high expectations when it comes to effort and work. And for a young man like Griffin, who grew up coming to his coach’s youth camps and roaming Linnell Gymnasium with his grade-school buddies, meeting the expected standard matters.

“Tryouts were no different, no easier this year,” Griffin said. “We’re still doing eight to 10 laps around the gym, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of defensive slides.”

Second, as several others interviewed for this story noted, as a senior it is Griffin’s job to establish the norms and show the way for the younger players. That way they’ll be prepared when normality returns and they get their shot to make their own playoff history.

“Even though there’s no state tournament, we still get to play games, which we’re really thankful for, and it’s a chance for us as seniors to work the underclassmen,” Griffin said. “We’re just going to do what they’ve done in the past. Like myself when I was a sophomore, they would push you, maybe a little bit of tough love, because they know what it’s like to be successful and that’s how we keep it going.”

‘WE DO A GOOD JOB OF HYPING EACH OTHER UP’ 

Jaehee Park of Greely High, right, gets a hug from Caroline Mahoney of Cape Elizabeth after the two competed at the 2018 Class B state championships. Park finished second in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle in last year’s state meet and anchored the Rangers’ second-place 200-yard freestyle relay team. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Jaehee Park, a senior at Greely High, is one of the top returning Class B swimmers in the state and has signed a national letter of intent to swim at American University in Washington, D.C.

For her, this season is about getting ready for college while also showing the underclassmen what a high school swim team is really about.

“As a senior, I feel it’s part of our job is to show (the others) this is how it’s going to be (in the future),” she said. “I think it’s easy for underclassmen to think they can slack off or not even come to practice. They might be thinking, we’re just practicing this year, we don’t even know if we’re going to have meets.

“We do a good job hyping each other up so that next year, they will know what practices are like and what the atmosphere should be like.”

Park, 18, said she is “super excited to have this opportunity to keep on training.”

She also swims for a club team and has had a virtual meet. It is a different experience than having a pool full of screaming teammates and friends urging you on as you try to finish a race.

But she said she is learning to draw on her own inner strength to get through the season.

“It is tough sometimes,” she said. “The best part about racing is knowing you have a crowd there, cheering for you. So for me, it’s a little tough. You’re at a pool and it feels like practice. You have to put yourself mentally in the zone. You have to be super dedicated to get your body and mind to the point where you feel the adrenaline and force yourself to race hard.”

Park finished second in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle in last year’s state meet and also anchored the Rangers’ second-place 200-yard freestyle relay team.

When she found out the season would include virtual meets and, likely, no state championship, she was disappointed. But she has found reason to continue with her teammates.

“It is my senior year, so it was kind of a bummer,” she said. “But it’s nice to see the incoming freshman and create this bond with a high school team that changes every year, but really stays the same.”

Park was accepted into American University’s School of Public Affairs and hopes to study pre-law.


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