SACO — The girls on the Maine Firecrackers sat on the hardwood floor in a circle, eyes and ears glued to their club coach, Don Briggs.

Briggs was pitching a familiar theme to his all-star group of nine basketball players, representing seven Maine high schools.

“We’ve climbed a lot of mountains as a program and as a team,” he said, and winning an elite tournament outside of Atlanta in front of 50 college coaches “was the highest peak we’ve reached.”

Then Briggs got to his point. There’s a higher summit on the horizon: the competition at the next tourney would be even tougher.

Heads nodded in agreement. After all, each of the girls on the 16-and-under team wants to play in college – and each believes club basketball will help her get there.

“Maine girls’ basketball wasn’t much on the map until (club) basketball came around,” said Brie Wajer, a Firecrackers guard from Newcastle who will be a senior at Lincoln Academy. “It gives you opportunities, and if you take hold of those opportunities and make the best of them, you can go anywhere.”

Over the past decade, club basketball teams like the Firecrackers have dramatically altered the girls’ basketball landscape in Maine. Many top players will spend as much time practicing and playing for their club team as they do with their high school program. Their families will spend thousands of dollars allowing them to compete in tourneys up and down the East Coast.

Club basketball programs offer teams for kids as young as 8 through age 18. The appeal is a chance to practice with and compete against stronger players, which would improve skills better than simply playing interscholastic basketball.

While club basketball has its critics, one thing is clear: Maine’s top girls’ basketball players are being recruited sooner, more often, and by more colleges because club basketball has increased their exposure to college coaches.

At least 15 players from Maine high schools are expected to be on 11 different NCAA Division I women’s rosters in 2016-17. By comparison, in 2000-01 there were seven women from Maine on four rosters.

And while many club basketball programs offer teams for both boys and girls, the impact of these programs has been significantly greater for girls.

“Girls’ basketball at the high school level is superior to the boys’ level,” said Rick Simonds, the former men’s coach at Division III St. Joseph’s and now director of the Maine Renegades club program for girls and boys. “I was also the athletic director at St. Joe’s for 20 years. I could list eight to 10 women who played for us, who if they came out today wouldn’t be playing at St. Joe’s.”

Five of the nine players on Briggs’ 16-and-under Firecrackers team have been offered a Division I scholarship. Emily Esposito, who will be a senior this fall at Gorham, verbally has committed to Villanova. Danasia Fennie, who also plays at Gorham, has multiple scholarship offers entering her senior year. Sophomores who already have been offered full scholarships, according to Briggs, are guard Anna DeWolfe of Greely, guard/forward Faith Blethen of Boothbay Region and center Mackenzie Holmes of Gorham.

Holmes’ father, Lenny Holmes, used to coach some of Maine’s best boys’ basketball players on club teams. Now he and his wife, Joan, run smaller tournaments for club teams through their Maine Hoops organization – and follow their daughter to out-of-state tournaments.

“We are not that far behind the best – I mean the absolute best – players when it comes to this current group of girls,” Holmes said. “I never had that feeling when I coached the boys. We might have an individual like (former Deering High and University of Maryland star) Nik Caner-Medley once in a great while, but we never had a team of players.”

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The Greater Portland area has five established clubs running travel teams for girls from grade school through high school. The Firecrackers and Maine Maniacs are girls-only programs. The Renegades, Blue Wave and YES! have boys’ and girls’ teams. In northern Maine, Black Bear North of Bangor offers a full coed program. Many other clubs consist of a team or two, set up by a parent or interested coach.

The number of club teams is not significantly greater than 10 to 15 years ago. The difference is more teams are playing out of state, with greater success against tougher competition.

Three girls’ teams from Maine wrapped up their summer season at the U.S. Junior National/Nike tournament in Washington, D.C., a 30-court event with teams from across the country and Canada, and college coaches from 222 Division I, 67 Division II and 146 Division III programs.

Maine Basketball Report, once a major club force for boys and girls in Maine, fielded a team coached by Andrew Morong of Central Maine Community College that went 5-0 in its pool-play competition, then won the Copper Division (sixth in a heirarchy of eight divisions). Also in the Copper Division were the Portland-based Blue Wave (4-1 in pool play) and a youthful squad from the Brunswick-based Maniacs (2-3). The Maine teams played teams from Maryland, Virginia, Ontario and across the Northeast.

While the UConn and Baylor coaches weren’t scouring the Copper Division, other college coaches had their eyes on Maine players.

“There were multiple coaches from various levels at all of our games,” Morong said. “We played against players who were definitely scholarship level players and most were definitely Division III players. Every game was super intense and I know we got better.”

Morong can coach youth teams because Central Maine Community College is a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, which does not have recruiting restrictions regarding coaches directing high school players.

“This was my first time at the event and I was absolutely blown away by the talent level, top to bottom,” Morong said. “These were some of the best players I’ve ever seen.”

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Club basketball in Maine in the late 1990s and early 2000s consisted mostly of individual teams competing at the state and possibly New England levels. Players capable of pursuing Division I scholarships routinely went to Nashua, New Hampshire, to play for the Nike-sponsored New England Crusaders.

Samantha Allen, the women’s coach at the University of Southern Maine, graduated from Lake Region High in 2006. She was a scholarship player at Division II Southern New Hampshire before concluding her college career at Colby College.

“I played AAU basketball with a couple different teams,” Allen said. “I played with some Maine-based programs coached by Mike Cimino, Ashley Cimino’s dad.”

Ashley Cimino graduated from McAuley High in 2007 and played at Stanford.

“When Ashley went to the Crusaders, I followed her,” Allen said.

People often incorrectly use the term AAU as a generic label for club teams. Actually, AAU (the Amateur Athletic Union) is a national organization that organizes competitions at the state, regional and national level in multiple sports. AAU tournaments were the pinnacle for club sports’ teams, thus travel teams became colloquially known as AAU teams. Club teams still play in AAU tournaments but most tournaments are run by privately owned organizations.

Opportunities for girls in Maine began to shift around 2004. That’s when Pete Champagne of Brunswick decided his basketball-loving daughters needed a better competitive outlet and he formed the Maine Maniacs.

“My oldest daughter was in the fifth grade,” Champagne said. “The idea was to start a program for her. Now my youngest, Julia, is in college playing at St. Joseph’s, and this year we had 10 teams for 110 girls. I had three daughters in three different age groups and from there it kind of bloomed.”

Three years later, Brian Clement of Falmouth and Briggs of Scarborough “decided to do our own thing,” Briggs said. Their original group – called the Falboro Firecrackers because the players were from Falmouth and Scarborough – included current college players Allie Clement (now playing at Marist), Olivia Smith (Dartmouth), and Ashley Briggs (Saint Anselm).

“We never anticipated having two teams let alone eight,” Briggs said.

Portland-based YES! (Youth Education through Sports) is in its 22nd year teaching basketball skills and drills at The Basketball Academy and has run travel teams for about 13 years, according to Dudley Davis, the executive director.

“In the grand scheme of things we feel we’re kind of the pioneer. By no means were we the creators of skills and drills but we think we were the first to introduce it in Maine,” Davis said.

Davis said he faced considerable backlash from high school coaches.

“People thought we were teaching them to be hot dogs – dribble between their legs, go behind their back – and now they’re all doing it,” he said. “I’m from New York City. I knew these kids were going to need to be able to put the ball on the floor and take people off the dribble.”

Participating in club basketball has become the norm, and nearly essential, for impact players in high school.

“The cream rises to the top,” Champagne said. “If you’re just an unbelievable athlete, then you might be able to still be a starter in high school, but if you’re part of the other 90 percent, then you’re going to be behind the other girls who are getting all these extra touches on the basketball.”

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The cost of playing club basketball varies depending on the club and expected level of competition. Per season costs range from $200-500 for younger kids to $450-900 for high schoolers. Those fees cover uniforms, extra gear, insurance, practice rental costs, tournament entry fees and, if applicable, coaches’ stipends. Some clubs pay their coaches (YES!, MBR Morong), others do not (Firecrackers).

Most of the travel, lodging and meal expenses fall on parents.

“Depending on where you’re going, you’re easily talking thousands of dollars,” said Lenny Holmes. “If you’re going outside of New England, which a lot of the top teams do, probably every event is $1,500 minimum if you’re a parent who wants to watch and go there.”

Briggs (Firecrackers), Davis (YES!) and Shawn Legassey of the Blue Wave said they provide financial support when it’s needed.

“We probably have one, one-and-a-half players on scholarship per team,” Briggs said. “We build that into our budget. But we can’t have 10 of those players.”

Coaches and club directors trumpet their recruiting success stories to promote their program. But they are careful not to guarantee college scholarships. Legassey said judging a club program by how many Division I or II players it produces is misguided.

“There is a small percentage of women who actually get to play college basketball at any level from Maine,” Legassey said. “So I think the focus for those girls who do play in college is going to a place that’s the right fit academically.”

Wajer has played for the Firecrackers since the eighth grade and wants to play in college. She echoed many of her teammates when she said club basketball’s rewards include friendships and personal growth.

“If I get injured tomorrow and can’t play again, it’s fine. It’s well worth it,” Wajer said.

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Club basketball critics suggest players spend too much time chasing trophies in games and not enough time practicing their craft.

Richard Barron, the head coach at the University of Maine, has filled his 2016-17 roster with nine foreign players. While associate head coach Amy Vachon was in Washington, D.C., at the USJN/Nike tournament, Barron was on a 10-day trip in Europe.

“Club basketball certainly gives players some exposure to college recruiters, and I am sure that the experience of traveling with friends and family to the competitions, while very expensive, is a great deal of fun,” Barron said. “However, the most important thing for an aspiring college player is improvement. Finding the time to commit yourself to a routine of self-improvement will result in a skill set that will draw the attention of college coaches, no matter where you are.”

USM’s Allen also stopped short of saying club basketball produces better players.

“I think it’s provided a lot more opportunities for players to get reps and play throughout the year, which is great,” Allen said.

Simonds said he was “absolutely against” club basketball as a college coach “because in my dealings there were a lot of unsavory individuals who were exploiting kids and/or who didn’t really understand how to coach young people.”

Now that he’s on the other side, Simonds has been impressed by the number of quality programs in Maine, especially for girls.

“I think there is a recognition across the state that high school basketball is not as competitive as what the parents would like to see it, and therefore (club) basketball provides a more competitive schedule and opportunity,” Simonds said.

The Firecrackers were the only New England 16-and-under entry in the All-Star Girls Report Summer Playoff Challenge last week in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Firecrackers beat teams from North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio (in overtime), and New York to win their half of the bracket, then defeated the Southern Starz of Huntsville, Alabama, 47-45. Briggs said the Ohio team had eight Division I recruits. The Southern Starz program won four AAU Division I age-group titles in 2015.

Esposito was named to the tournament’s Elite24 all-star game. Firecracker games drew from 35 to more than 50 coaches.

“The biggest thing to me is coaches are going to the games to watch us play,” Briggs said. “It used to be they came to watch the other teams and we got carried along. These are the mountains we have had to climb, to get tournament directors to believe in us. Now we have a following of 30 to 40 colleges and it grows each year.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 1 to show that Lenny Holmes and his wife, Joan, run the Maine Hoops basketball organization.