February 27, 2013

Bill Nemitz: New 'playbook' leads team to hidden strengths

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

South Portland basketball coach Phil Conley

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

"Everybody got into it," said MacVane. "It felt like it changed the whole team chemistry."

Not to mention its record.

South Portland won its first seven games.

By the end of the regular season, the Red Riots' 15-3 record earned them the No. 1 seed in the Western Maine Class A tournament.

And on Saturday, after trailing Bonny Eagle High School by seven points at halftime, they came back to win the regional championship 56-52 – and with it, a shot at a state title that South Portland last won more than two decades ago.

Coincidence? This team thinks not.

It's impossible, of course, to quantify exactly how much the weekly talk-arounds affected the team's full-court press or field-goal percentage.

Yet to a man and boy, they insist that the discussions -- from the bigger message behind a degrading wisecrack about a girl on Facebook, to the headlines ignited by the murderous rage of the late NFL (and University of Maine) football star Jovan Belcher -- helped propel the team to its grand finale this Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center.

And the title game, in the long run, isn't even the point.

"I teach phys ed at Brown and Small schools," noted Conley, referring to two of South Portland's five elementary schools. "And I can tell you that 95 percent of the kids at those schools know all of the players on the boys' basketball team. They'll come up to me and say, 'I saw Ben Burkey at the mall!' or 'I saw so-and-so at the Rec Center!' These guys are role models."

Better yet, they're about to become poster boys for treating women and girls, anytime and anyplace, with the same respect they'd demand for their own mothers and sisters -- a connection Conley made repeatedly throughout the season.

Earlier this month, the team gathered for a photo session – not for the yearbook, but for a series of anti-violence placards that soon will adorn school hallways throughout the district.

It will be a coming-out of sorts. Until now, the Coaching Boys Into Men rollout has been confined largely to the players and their families.

So do they cringe at the thought of seeing their mugs all over town? Are they nervous about all those other jocks who undoubtedly will ask, "You guys talked about what?"

Senior forward Ryan Pelletier isn't. A founding member of Guys and Pies, he came to school Monday wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with slogans like "Stop joking about dating abuse" and "Take responsibility for your own actions."

"It's a really good concept," said Pelletier with quiet confidence. "So there's no need to be nervous."

Besides, these guys have more than enough butterflies to contend with as they think about that elusive Gold Ball. They weren't even born the last time it landed in the school's trophy case, following a legendary, five-overtime victory over Bangor way back in 1992.

"Whatever happens, happens," said Coach Conley. "Like I tell these guys all the time -- as long as we can say at the end of the game, 'We did our best.'"

And then some.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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