AUGUSTA — Ten years ago, A.R. Gould boys’ basketball coach Chad Sturgis often got the same response from schools when he asked if they would play his team.

“Really?” they’d say.

“Most teams wouldn’t play us,” Sturgis said. “It was like the ‘Gridiron Gang.’ ”

That’s because Sturgis’ players are technically inmates. The A.R. Gould School is the educational component at Long Creek Youth Development Center, a juvenile corrections facility in South Portland. But the Bears have come a long way from those days. On Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center, A.R. Gould competed in its first regional championship game, losing 69-33 to Greenville High in the Class D South final.

However, you wouldn’t know they’d just suffered a lopsided loss from their smiles.

“It was pretty good – felt cool,” Issak Aliyow said with a grin. The senior captain scored 16 points for the Bears, who finished with a 17-4 record.

“I told them, ‘No matter if we win or lose, we’re still the best Bears team to go out in history. We’ve got a plaque that the school has never had.’ ”

“We’ve got to build a trophy case now,” Sturgis said. His players laughed.

Another senior captain, Tyrese Collins, accepted their plaque as regional runners-up during the postgame awards ceremony. He held it high with a wide smile to wild applause.

While A.R. Gould isn’t your typical high school, the Bears don’t lack support. Spectators cheering them on included their families, teachers and guards, as well as fellow and former inmates.

“It means a lot to me,” Collins said. “I realized we had a lot of talent and could make it a long way. I pushed everybody as hard as I could.”

“Guys like Tyrese need basketball,” Sturgis said. “He needs a positive incentive to work during the offseason. He’s been great all year long. It’s important for everybody to have a change of pace and have something like that. If you don’t have that, all you have is negatives to reinforce behaviors.”

While Greenville accepted its trophy, the Bears watched from their bench with blank stares, occasionally cracking a smile when fans wrapped their arms around them, hugging them from behind. On Collins’ lap sat his son – a 2-year-old with springy blond curls. His mom, Susan, kissed Collins’ cheek.

“It gave him so much self-confidence – it just makes him shine,” she said. As for her reaction to the loss? “My heart sank. (Tyrese) is trying to cheer up his team.”

The team never moped or stopped patting each other on the back – behavior Sturgis said is typical for the team. Despite initial reluctance from schools to play games behind the locked doors at Long Creek, he has received many compliments and letters noting the players’ positivity and politeness in the past five years.

“They’re a terror on the court, but they’re smiles win or lose,” Sturgis said. “They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity their entire life – it’s no different from the day-to-day struggle they go through. It’s good that they know that there is a bunch of people who support them.

“They’re disappointed, but they know that they weren’t expected to be here. You’re talking about a bunch of kids who have never played together. Eleven days of practice before your first game against a team who has been playing together potentially since grade school.”

The Bears’ success has united the school. As Greenville pulled farther ahead during Saturday’s game, Sturgis had his players look behind them at their fans.

“Hey, you’re down 20 right now and these people are still clapping for you,” Sturgis told them. “Hey, you’re down 30 and they’re still clapping.”

Keegan Gaouette and Ibe Mokeme were among the more vocal spectators – clapping and standing up after every good play by the Bears. Mokeme occasionally flashed a thumbs-up to the A.R. Gould players.

Gaouette initially hesitated to talk about their association with the school.

“We’re locked up with them,” Gaouette revealed. “To see how far we’ve come – it just shows how much pride we have about who we are.”

“Some of the kids haven’t been to a place like this with this many people watching,” Mokeme said. “Win or lose, I’m still proud of my boys.”

Before games, players get to substitute their beige and gray uniforms for their blue warmups, which Sturgis said facilitates the feeling of a “real high school.” The team typically celebrates wins with meals from McDonalds, but on Saturday they were headed to China Buffet to cap off their season.

“It changed everything – it has created a real community,” Sturgis said. “Everybody is worth a second chance.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: