AUGUSTA — More than the basketball, almost perpetually in front of us inside the Augusta Civic Center daily from dawn to darkness, this tournament week has been about circles finally made whole.

The Messalonskee boys and the Nokomis girls made memorable runs to the Class A North semifinals in each of their respective brackets, with squads that were at times overlooked. For the Eagles, their season began with losses in eight of their first nine games. For the Warriors, they played in the large shadow cast by Lizzy Gruber and her undefeated Gardiner squad on the girls side of the bracket, despite entering the week as a No. 3 seed.

Messalonskee’s season began in turmoil, even before the dreadful start.

Former coach Jay Dangler left the program following the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, and the Eagles embarked on a new era with the hiring of Isaiah Brathwaite as head coach. Brathwaite coached the squad through the summer and readied the Eagles for a fresh start.

Then, late last fall, dominoes started falling. Longtime Cony boys coach T.J. Maines, whom Brathwaite once played under, stepped down to take on an administrative role at the school. Brathwaite, with the blessing of Messalonskee assistant principal Peter McLaughlin, leapt at the last-minute chance to return to the Rams. 

It was a perfect opportunity and a perfect fit.

Only it left Messalonskee, on the eve of the start of the preseason, without a head coach. McLaughlin, nearly four years removed from coaching in order to focus his attention on his young family and administrative duties, knew he had only one choice.

“If you would have told me three weeks before the season started, I would have said I was never coming back,” McLaughlin said prior to Messalonskee’s 54-34 semifinal loss to Skowhegan Wednesday night.

“My last team, I coached them all summer and then got hired (as assistant principal) in August. I watched when they went 8-1 at the break and went 2-7 over the rest and lost in the first round (in 2020). That’s always stuck with me. Those seniors I’m still close with, I still think about them all the time. Getting hired right before the season, it kind of made that whole.”

The current Messalonskee seniors weren’t even on campus the last time McLaughlin coached them. It was during summer ball, prior to the start of their freshman year, that they last had McLaughlin barking orders and offering encouragement. 

That 1-8 record to begin this season spoke to the learning curve for both the players and the coach. Seven wins in a 10-game march to the regional semifinals was proof that the ol’ ball coach can still get the most out of his players.

“They needed to get to know me as a basketball coach and not as their assistant principal,” said an emotional McLaughlin, acknowledging that he does not know what next season holds for him or the program. “Our goals never changed. With the season playing out the way it was and everybody beating everybody, we knew we just had to hit stride at the right time.

“We had a long talk when we were 1-8. We had a 45-minute conversation that took place that was what we needed to do to be in this tournament and have success when we get here. The kids bought it hook, line and sinker.”

In Newport, the Nokomis girls also needed to get to know their new coach. Chelsea Crockett was returning to a stage where she had been a player less than four years earlier.

Crockett was a senior on the 2017-18 Nokomis team, one year after playing a key role on a Warriors team that appeared in the Class A North final.

“I have always wanted to coach,” Crockett said following Wednesday’s loss to unbeaten Gardner in the semifinals. “I think it helps going from player to coach, and being in their shoes just a few years ago. I understand what they’re going through. I know how they’re feeling during the game, the hardships they face.”

Crockett devised a game plan that kept the Tigers uncomfortable and out of rhythm for most of Wednesday’s semi. She rarely paced or pleaded, instead projecting a quiet confidence that belied her fiercely competitive nature.

As a player, Crockett was much the same.

“I would say that’s fair,” said Crockett, now a teacher at Nokomis. “I think that what we as coaches try to teach the players is to control what you can control. That’s been our mantra this season and last season, too. We had a rough go of it last year, coming out of (COVID) and having that perseverance when facing adversity.”

When players, parents and program supporters look back at the 2023 tournament, those representing both the Messalonskee boys and the Nokomis girls will do so proudly.

They’ll do so knowing that their circles were made whole.

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