There will be an international flavor to the Portland High/Red Claws Christmas Basketball Tournament as a boys’ team from Zagreb, Croatia, will participate.

The team’s coach, Maine native Mike Soucie, contacted Portland Coach Joe Russo about playing in the tournament. Two games have been scheduled for Zagreb, which is composed of players from club teams around a city that has a population of more than 700,000.

Zagreb plays Portland at 7 p.m. Dec. 27  and Susan Wagner High of Staten Island, N.Y., at 4 p.m. Dec. 28. The 28th annual holiday tournament goes from the day after Christmas to Dec. 28 at Portland Expo.

Soucie went to Mt. Blue High in Farmington with Mike Adams, the Edward Little coach, and coached with Chris Bessey at Jay. Soucie went to the UMaine-Farmington where he met his future wife, who is from Croatia. Soucie has coached there for the last 12 years.

“This is the third team I have brought to the United States and the second in the last three years,” said Soucie.

“The team I brought in 2011 watched a game at the Portland tournament and was really bummed out not to be playing. I started a basketball program a few years ago because I wanted Croatian players to be able to experience the U.S. basketball system that is much different than the European model used in Croatia. Most of the players have a desire to play high school or college basketball in the United States,” he said.

“The biggest challenge for my team will be the differences in rules and style of play,” said Soucie. “We have a 24-second clock and we have the Euro step which allows players to take two steps all over the court. I hope we can avoid being called for 15 travels a game.”

Zagreb will spend Christmas in New York City and attend an NBA game between the Nets and the Bulls. They will head up to Maine after that and stay with host families. The team has three other games scheduled besides the two in the tournament. Soucie said there’s also a chance for two more games.

Asked what kind of talent Zagreb will bring, Portland High coach and tournament director Joe Russo said: “I’ve been told they would be a solid Class A program.”

In addition to the boys’ competition, there will be 10 girls’ games. The tournament opens with the Falmouth and Scarborough girls playing at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 26. There will be two girls’ and three boys’ games Dec. 26 and four girls and five boys’ games Dec. 27 and 28.

Along with Susan Wagner High, the other boys’ team in the tournament from out of state is New Dorp High, also from Staten Island, N.Y. There are two girls’ teams from out of state, Winnacunnet High and Bedford High, both from New Hampshire.

Two of the boys’ games will be regular season games. Deering and Gorham will play at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 27, and Windham and Scarborough will play at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 28. Teams will give up their home court to play a game at the Expo because it gives them a chance to get accustomed to the building and the court. The Expo is the site of the Western Maine Class A and B boys’ and girls’ regional quarterfinals.

The Deering-Gorham game will precede the Portland-Zagreb game. Bonny Eagle and Falmouth boys’ will wrap up Friday’s schedule at 8:30 p.m.

On Thursday’s opening night, Portland and Falmouth meet in the final game at 8:30 p.m.

“Any games we can play at the Expo is a bonus,” said Deering boys’ Coach Todd Wing.

A NUMBER OF TEAMS have been pleasant surprises in the early going, among them Morse High of Bath. The Shipbuilders opened 4-0 with key wins over Winslow and Medomak Valley. Coach Sam Hayes is in his second year with the program. Morse finished 7-11 last season, losing in a Western Maine Class B tournament preliminary round game to Wells. Entering the season, Hayes was hopeful that experience would be an advantage. So far it has.

“Being here for the second year has certainly helped,” said Hayes, who coached the Brunswick boys for three seasons in the 1990s and the Hall-Dale girls for four years after that.

“The players know what the expectations are and are familiar with what I run for offense and defense,” he said.

So far, Ethan Winglass and Jacob Freeman have been the offensive leaders. Six-foot-six Chris Paulus has been a force underneath. Paulus, who missed the second half of last season, had six blocks against Medomak Valley.

“Everyone has chipped in and done their part,” said Hayes.

Other teams off to fast starts that might have been under the radar include Scarborough, Cheverus, Fryeburg Academy and Old Orchard Beach.

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, Deering plays at Cheverus and Portland plays at South Portland in two attractive matchups.

Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: TomChardPPH

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