PORTLAND — In the minutes after Courtney Alofs walked off the court and out of the bright lights of the Cumberland County Civic Center, a message popped up on her phone that brought her to tears.
“Congratulations on a great career,” read the short text message from her father.
Emerging from the locker room a few minutes later, she walked past a section of waiting fans and greeted her mother in a teary embrace.
“Seeing her on the stairs in her Scarborough Storm T-shirt, I realized this was the last time I’d be there,” Alofs said.
It was the last time she’d play high school basketball. The last time she’d spend months practicing with her best friends. The last time she’d chase the gold ball.
Scarborough had just lost 47-38 to McAuley, which came into the Western Class A girls’ semifinal match-up with a 45-game win streak. It was a close game for a McAuley team that regularly beats opponents by 30 or more points.
For most of the six seniors on the Scarborough varsity team, it was the last time they would play competitive basketball. It was a familiar, bittersweet scene that played out across the state as the basketball season drew to a close and players – most of whom won’t play college ball – walked away from the court forever.
“It was a great ride,” Alofs said. “I wouldn’t have done it with any other girls.”
Five of the Scarborough girls – Alofs, Taylor LeBorgne, Maria Philbrick, Marisa O’Toole and Grace Farnkoff – began playing basketball together as early as elementary school. By sixth grade they were on the same travel team and won a state championship title. To celebrate, they ran through the halls singing “We Are the Champions,” a sudden burst of excitement that they laugh about now.
Alofs said that early taste of victory fed their competitive drive.
Mary Redmond, who had played travel basketball with a couple of Scarborough players, transferred to the school before their junior year. She said her teammates made the transition easy.
In the two years since, the seniors have focused on improving their skills and adapting to new coaches and playing styles. Even in the waning days of their high school career, with the odds stacked against them, their goal was to end the same way they started: as state champions.
They would save their tears for graduation.
‘OUR UNFINISHED BUSINESS’
As the basketball players arrived at the high school for their last practice on Feb. 21, they walked past the team’s last gold ball, perched in a trophy case overflowing with the school’s trove of championship trophies and plaques.
Some of the seniors were on the varsity team that hoisted that gold ball in celebration in 2010.
Alofs, a forward who played varsity her freshman year, said the focus of this season was the same for all players, whether they were on the court back in 2010 or not: “We want to bring the gold ball back.”
Redmond, the team’s leading scorer, said the playoff game had extra meaning because McAuley knocked Scarborough out of the playoffs last year. Earlier this season, Scarborough fell to McAuley 65-42.
“It’s our unfinished business this year,” Redmond said.
At practice, Coach Ron Cote gathered his team on the court to discuss how he wanted them to approach the game. Most people in the civic center will expect Scarborough to lose, he said.
“You need to believe you can beat them. We have nothing to lose,” Cote said. “It would bother me if you don’t compete. I do not look at you guys as athletes who give up. I would think you’d compete from the first second to the last second, no matter what the score is.”
As always, he said, you should leave your hearts on the floor.
“I don’t have to tell you how excited you need to be,” Cote said. “We’re going in there and we’re going to have some fun.”
During practice the players were focused – exactly what Cote has come to expect from them.
“The thing I’ve noticed is they have a mentality of ‘we’re going to compete and refuse to lose,’ ” Cote said. “They make my job easier.”
Mike Jefferds, the assistant coach nicknamed “Big Girl 1” by the team because he stands in as a tall player during practice, has worked with them for the past two years, but has known many of the players for close to a decade.
He calls them “the greatest group of kids in the world” and can quickly rattle off what makes them special: There is no drama or cattiness. The girls take criticism without becoming emotional. They want to win and they push themselves harder every day.
“As athletes, you ask kids to play without emotion and to play hard. You don’t have to stress that with them, they just do it,” Jefferds said. “Off the court, you’ll see them pick each other up if someone is down. They’re a coach’s dream.”
The friendships the seniors built during a decade playing together is evident on and off the court, Jefferds said.
“The biggest compliment I can give them is they’re role models for my 12-year-old daughter,” he said. “They lead by example. There’s a quiet confidence about them.”
That confidence was on display the next day when the team arrived at the high school for one final shoot-around before the big game. After a half-hour on their home court, they boarded the bus for the short ride to the civic center.
Before the game they were focused on their strategy, but there was an awareness that this could be the last time they’d play together.
At their recent Senior Night, the underclassmen on the team had given them gifts and decorated the locker room.
“It overwhelmed us,” Alofs said. “It was reality. This is our last time so we better finish strong.”
That same night, LeBorgne “started bawling” when underclassmen presented their tribute to the seniors and she realized “this could be our last game and we don’t want it to be.”
“It just went by so fast,” Philbrick agreed. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep playing.”
‘IT’S A GRADUATION OF SORTS’
Well before the game started, David and Carlene Alofs staked out seats high above center court. For them, it was the end of years of cheering for their oldest daughter as she played her way to travel team and high school championships.
“It’s a graduation of sorts,” David Alofs said.
He said his daughter had been thinking about the game a little more than usual and had “some extra butterflies.” She didn’t want to talk about it much, he said.
“It’s sad,” Carlene Alofs said, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s the end of her Red Storm career.”
Cynthia and Richard O’Toole said it was a pleasure to watch Marisa grow up on and off the court with the other seniors on the team.
“It’s been really nice to watch the kids develop as a team. They get along well, they work together well,” Richard O’Toole said. “We’ll miss watching them play together.”
“It’s a little bittersweet,” Cynthia O’Toole added. Marisa O’Toole plans to play softball at Bowdoin, where she will study government and law.
Sitting a few rows away, Ron and Susan LeBorgne said they’ve enjoyed every minute of watching their daughter, Taylor, play basketball for Scarborough. Over the years they’ve watched her help bring home state championship titles in basketball, soccer and lacrosse. Despite all those victories in other sports, it was basketball that remained Taylor’s favorite, her mother said.
“I know they’ll be sad at their last game, but they have a lot to look forward to,” Susan LeBorgne said. “I told (Taylor), don’t cry, but be proud of yourself. A lot of kids never get here.”
After the game, there were few tears from the players. They changed out of their uniforms, hugged and high-fived their fans, then settled down in the stands to watch the next tournament game with their coaches.
“I think we played our hearts out,” Marisa O’Toole said. “If it was going to be our last game, we had to give it all we had.”
‘A TREMENDOUS YEAR’
On Wednesday afternoon, five days after the last game, the team gathered in the locker room for its final team meeting. The players handed in their uniforms, took down the paper streamers left over from Senior Night, and reflected on the season with their coach. They’ll get together officially as a team just one more time, for a special dinner with Cote to celebrate the season.
“I think we did what we were supposed to do,” Cote told his team. “I think we had a tremendous year.”
Farnkoff, who is headed to Colby next year to study biology and play softball, said she is having trouble believing the basketball season is over. It didn’t really start to sink in until she had nothing to do after school.
“It’s sad it’s over, but we gave everything we had, “ she said. “After the game it was emotional. All of the team was realizing it was our last time together.”
Though the girls all said they are sad to put their basketball days behind them, they are excited for the start of the spring sports season in about a month. Redmond, O’Toole and Farnkoff play softball; Philbrick plays tennis; LeBorgne is on the lacrosse team; and Alofs is the lone female thrower on the outdoor track team.
They’re looking forward to graduation, they said, and in the meantime will continue to hang out, challenge each other to Ping-Pong matches and visit their favorite waitress at Applebee’s.
“It’s kind of emotional, but we’ll still see each other all throughout school,” Alofs said, her eyes filling with tears. “This is not the end.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: