NORTH BERWICK – A.J. Dufort, the Noble boys’ basketball coach, wears many hats.

He has a goal of what he terms “creating a buzz” about Noble basketball, but it’s been tough sledding for the coach and his program.

As he begins his fifth season, Dufort is entrenched in his role as coach, promoter and organizer. He hasn’t lost his enthusiasm despite few wins. He knows it’s a process and steps to improve often come in small increments.

The Knights had three wins last year, tying the most in a season for the past nine years. Dufort is cautiously optimistic about bettering that total.

“We’re going to have to play well every night,” he said. “It’s not like we can circle anything on our schedule as a win.”

While Dufort sees things going in the right direction, he also knows the rest of Western Class A has improved.

As high school basketball opens statewide tonight, the teams that comprise the bulk of Noble’s schedule, its fellow York County opponents, also are better. So while Dufort and his players see improvement, the end result in wins may not be that much different than last season.

Frustrating to be sure, but that’s what it’s like playing in Western Class A and arguably the toughest league in the state. When you don’t have a Class A basketball tradition like Noble, it’s tough to make headway.

And who does Noble open against? None other than Cheverus, the defending Class A state champion.

“We’ve opened with Cheverus every year I’ve been here,” said Dufort. “I don’t know who I upset.”

Dufort has a fan in Cheverus Coach Bob Brown, who called Dufort “the hardest-working coach in the SMAA.”

“The program has been down but he’s working his butt off,” said Brown. “It takes a lot of energy to do what he does.”

Nice praise from a Maine coaching icon, but something Dufort tries to deflect.

“I think all the SMAA coaches work hard. Everyone’s situation is different,” he said.

There’s no question that Noble’s situation is a lot different than city schools. There are no banners celebrating the Knights’ success.

Dufort is trying to change that at a school known for producing state championship wrestling teams. And while the sports attract different athletes, wrestling has enjoyed a prominence in Berwick, North Berwick and Lebanon. Kids in those towns are attracted to wrestling in grammar school. Dufort has been working to get a segment hooked on basketball.

“Both sports pull from different athletes,” said Dufort. “I think both sports can coexist with basketball having success but it hasn’t happened yet. The key is starting them young.”

So Dufort works on creating a buzz, beginning with a pregame ceremony that features a 12-foot screen showing a video with music. The lights dim for player introductions.

“It’s definitely a positive,” said senior point guard Nick Grant. “We want to have an exciting, fun environment for our games. Basketball hasn’t been the main attraction of the sports program. We’re not a basketball community yet but I think we’re getting there.”

Dufort’s staff consists of his father, Andy, a former Wells coach, plus the junior varsity coach.

They must do things themselves. With no recreation basketball program in the area, each Saturday morning during the season, Dufort and his players have youth basketball clinics and games at the high school.

Because the school district is spread out, it requires work for parents to get kids to the school.

“We want to get them started at a young age,” said Dufort. “I don’t see many outdoor baskets in the school district. If they start with basketball, hopefully they’ll stay with it. The kids here got an early start in wrestling and they’ve stayed with it.”

Noble doesn’t have an AAU basketball program. Dufort cited cost and travel issues.

Dufort does take his teams to camps at colleges in the summer. The Knights have gone to the University of North Carolina, Bryant University in Rhode Island, and last summer played in a tourney in Darien, Conn., then went to Washington, D.C. This in addition to going to a camp at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire each summer.

“We’re looking to make basketball special,” he said.

Dufort has initiated a Noble fan appreciation group, where spectators can get free tickets and meals, all with the intent of getting more people in the stands.

“A.J. is the right person for the job,” said Sanford Coach Kyle Hodsdon, who teaches at Noble Middle School. “He’s extremely positive. He’s the coach, the SID and the public-relations person all rolled into one. He does all the extras. A.J. is trying to create consistency.”

If tryouts are a measuring stick, Dufort’s efforts seem to be working. Noble had 56 kids try out.

Dufort also hopes continuity is a factor in turning things around. He’s the only coach of the last four who has stayed longer than two years. The previous three each stayed two seasons and left.

While admitting it’s frustrating not to win, Dufort said he’s not planning to leave.

“I have a job to do here. I have no desire to move anywhere,” he said.

Noble had success in boys’ basketball in the 1980s when it played in Class B. Dufort is working to have that success in Class A.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:

[email protected]