As preseason pep talks go, this one left an entire team squirming.

“This season we’ll not only be focusing on your development as athletes, but also on your development as young men,” Coach Phil Conley, reading from a playbook he’d never before used, told his South Portland High School basketball team way back in early December.

“That includes how you carry yourself and how you treat others,” Conley continued. “Particularly women and girls.”

Say what, Coach?

“I thought it wasn’t going to be very productive at first,” recalled senior forward Ben Burkey, who will join his 14 teammates this weekend as they take on Hampden Academy for the Class A state championship. “But I was proven wrong.”

Most high school basketball playbooks begin and end with a dizzying array of X’s and O’s.

Flip through the pages of “Coaching Boys Into Men,” on the other hand, and you’ll find headings like “Bragging About Sexual Reputation,” “The Responsibility of Physical Strength” and “There’s No Excuse for Relationship Abuse.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it 100 times,” said Conley, off-the-court playbook in hand. “I firmly believe that this brought my team together to where it is today.”

It all started last summer.

Carlin Whitehouse, a youth educator with Family Crisis Services’ Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, put out a feeler to the powers that be at South Portland High School: Might they be interested in Coaching Boys Into Men (not to be confused with the similar but separate program Boys to Men) as a pilot program for the school’s male student athletes?

The pitch hadn’t come entirely out of the blue. Since 2010, the violence prevention agency has run Guys and Pies — a weekly gathering of as many as a dozen South Portland High boys who sit down over pizza and talk about what it means to grow up male in a world of ever-changing social and sexual stereotypes.

But Coaching Boys Into Men, a first for Maine, would be different. Founded in 2001 by the national organization Futures Without Violence, it aims its message directly at the pinnacle of teenage social hierarchy: the male athlete.

The goal: Give coaches the tools they need to communicate meaningfully with their players about respecting women and girls, about acting as role models for their peers and the younger kids coming up behind them, about appreciating that the strongest men aren’t always the ones with the biggest biceps.

Bring it on, responded South Portland Principal Jim Holland.

Just after school began in September, Whitehouse mapped out the program for Holland, Assistant Principal Joe Moore, Athletic Director Todd Livingston, school resource officer Allen Andrews, social worker Kara Tierney-Trevor and Adult Education coordinator David Brenner.

Green lights all around.

Then he met with the varsity football, soccer, baseball and basketball coaches.

More buy-in.

“This was a team process — all of us together,” said Conley, who readily agreed to go first. “That was vital.”

A little background on South Portland’s hoop prospects: Going into the season, few in the high school sports world expected the Red Riots to finish much higher than the middle of the pack.

“There were a lot of favorites,” recalled Ben Burkey with a wry smile. “And we weren’t one of them.”

Thus when Coach Conley announced to his players that practice would start a half-hour early each Wednesday so they could talk about becoming better young men, well, who wouldn’t look at the floor and squirm?

“I thought it was kind of awkward at first,” admitted senior forward Conner MacVane. “There were a lot of long silences.”

But then, right around the time they wrapped their heads around “Insulting Language” in Week 3, something remarkable happened.

“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:

[email protected]

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