SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland point guard Tanner Hyland breaks the press with the dribble and in one motion fires a no-look pass to a cutting Ben Burkey, who scores on a layup.
It’s happened more than once this season.
Hyland only needs a split second to know where Burkey is and where he would be to calculate how much zip he needs on his pass.
Ah, the benefits of playing together since elementary school.
That time it was Burkey on the receiving end of a Hyland pass. The next time it could be Conner MacVane, Calvin Carr or any combination of the seven seniors for the Red Riots.
The South Portland seniors will end their high school basketball careers Saturday night on Maine’s biggest stage, a state championship game.
The Red Riots (18-3) will play Hampden Academy (21-0) for the Class A state title at 7 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
The seniors — Hyland, Burkey, MacVane, Carr, Trevor Borelli and Ryan Pelletier — have played together since the fourth grade. The exception is Jack Tolan, who went to Holy Cross School in South Portland, then to Cheverus High for his freshman year before returning to South Portland.
Some played on different elementary school, rec department and middle school teams, but they came together on one team when three parents formed SP Hoops, an AAU team, when the players were in elementary school.
SP Hoops played in various tournaments and won a state title in its second year.
This group even competed against many of the Hampden Academy players they will face for the Gold Ball.
“We played them in the eighth grade and lost by something like 20 points,” said Carr, a guard.
“We all know what kind of players we are,” said Burkey, citing the benefits of playing together for nearly 10 years.
“Tanner has always been the shooter and dictated the offense. Conner is known as a tough, gritty player. Calvin plays hard-nosed defense. Pelletier is a good shooter and Trevor plays lock-down defense. We’re the big men who are counted on for rebounding, defense and scoring,” said Burkey, referring to himself and Tolan.
Tolan, a 6-foot-7 center, reunited with the group as a sophomore.
“It was so much different in the way of talent. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
Hyland and Burkey have played the longest together.
“We went to the same middle school,” said Hyland. “I know where he is most of the time and Ben knows to be ready when I have the ball. He catches most of them.”
Quipped Burkey: “He knows when not to throw it to me.”
That familiarity certainly has it benefits.
“The players know each other’s tendencies,” said Coach Phil Conley. “Tanner knows that a good shot for one of his teammates might not be a good shot for another. He knows where and when to get his teammates the ball.
“These guys are friends off the court. They work out together. Having players who have been together for a few years helps to have everyone on the same page. We’ve improved since the start of the season. One of the reasons we’re playing for a state title is because these players have been together for a while.”
That fraternity extends beyond the court.
“I don’t know about other teams, but I can honestly say that each one of these guys are my best friends,” said Carr.
Carr was a gym rat growing up.
He brought his lunch and spent hours shooting at the South Portland Rec Center, where some of his teammates would join him.
While they played other sports, basketball has been their first love.
“Everyone talks about winning a state title when they’re freshmen,” said Hyland. “My brother’s group (talked about it), the group after him did, but we’re the only one who has done it in a long time.”
“We haven’t done it yet,” said Carr.
“I know,” said Hyland. “But we’re in the game.”
Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at: