Former Gorham High star Mackenzie Holmes leads No. 6 Indiana in scoring with 17.9 points per game. Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

Mackenzie Holmes and Anna DeWolfe were transcendent Maine high school basketball stars, each leading their respective schools – Holmes at Gorham High and DeWolfe at Greely High in Cumberland – to multiple state championships.

There was no doubt they would play at the NCAA Division I level. And they are excelling.

Holmes, a 6-foot-3 junior forward at Indiana University, is one of the nation’s best players, recently named to the John R. Wooden Award midseason Top 25 watch list. DeWolfe, a junior point guard at Fordham University, is averaging over 20 points a game for the second consecutive season.

Coincidentally, or fittingly, both scored their 1,000th point on the same night back in December.

They are the most notable stars to advance from what has become a Golden Era of Maine high school girls’ basketball, a time in which more former players are competing at the NCAA’s highest levels than ever before. There are 10 former Maine high school girls’ players competing at the NCAA Division I level this year, and another 11 in the highly-competitive Division II Northeast-10 Conference.

“It’s not just a dream or a lottery ticket anymore,” said Brian Clement, one of the founders, along with Don Briggs, of the highly successful Maine Firecrackers AAU program, which is credited by many people with starting the wave of college interest in Maine players.

In addition to Holmes and DeWolfe, many of the eight others competing in Division I are former Firecrackers. Boothbay’s Faith Blethen is at George Washington, Kennebunk’s Emily Archibald at Providence, Messalonskee’s Gabrielle Wener at Monmouth, Gorham’s Emily Esposito at Boston University, Sanford’s Paige Cote at New Hampshire, Greely’s Camille Clement and Portland’s Gemima Motema at Northeastern and Mt. Blue’s Lexi Mittelstadt at Maine. In addition, Biddeford’s Gracie Martin is on the roster at Harvard, but will not play again this season after suffering another knee injury.

And the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Three current high school seniors have accepted scholarships to play Division I ball: Skowhegan’s Jaycie Christopher (Boston University), Wells’ Grace Ramsdell (Merrimack) and Windham’s Sarah Talon (Maine). In addition, Cony senior Indiya Clarke, who transferred to the Augusta school from Palmer, Alaska, for her senior year, is bound for Wofford College in South Carolina.

Former Greely High star Anna DeWolfe is averaging more than 20 points per game for Fordham University this season. Vinny Dusovic/Fordham athletics

Hampden Academy junior Bella McLaughlin has verbally committed to Providence, and several others, such as Gardiner junior Lizzy Gruber, Cheverus sophomore Maddie Fitzpatrick and Oceanside freshman Bailey Breen, already have Division I scholarship offers.

“I see the trend continuing,” said Abi Davids, the national director of basketball for XL Sports, based out of Saco, and a coach for several AAU teams. “And I see it getting better.”

It will if DeWolfe has anything to do with it.

“I’m always trying to sell my Maine people, whether I’ve played with them or not, whether they’ve been a Firecracker or not,” she said. “If they’re good people, with good personalities, I’m going to sell my Maine people.”

For decades, Maine has produced girls who went on to play at college basketball’s highest level, dating back into the early 1980s when Westbrook’s Lisa Blais (Manning) went to Old Dominion and Brunswick’s Joanne Palombo (McCallie) went to Northwestern. But this year is exceptional.

“It’s really ridiculous,” said Davids. “And then when you look at the Division II level, especially the Northeast-10, it’s really loaded.

Former South Portland High star Maggie Whitmore is one of four Mainers on the Bentley University roster. Mike Broglio/SportsPix

Indeed, eight of the 14 Northeast-10 teams have former Maine high school players on their rosters. Bentley University, which won the women’s Division II national championship in 2014 and has long mined Maine talent on both the men’s and women’s side, has four Mainers – senior Kolleen Bouchard of Houlton, sophomore Maggie Whitmore of South Portland, sophomore Brooke Obar of Greely and freshman Amanda Kabantu of Portland – on its roster of 12.

“We love those Maine kids,” said Bentley Coach C White. “You’re lucky when you get one. We all like kids who play hard, show dedication and are just good kids who know how to play. Everyone wants one or two on their roster.”

MORE EXPOSURE FOR MAINE PLAYERS

So how did this Golden Era of Maine high school girls’ basketball come about?

The growth of AAU and club basketball programs is at the top of the list. That led to more exposure for the players to college coaches at national tournaments. But other factors include better coaching at the high school level – college coaches rave about the fundamental skills the Maine players possess –  and the ability for players to seek private lessons and workouts. Social media has made a huge difference as well, with players able to showcase their skills.

“The technology is amazing right now,” said legendary Cony High Coach Paul Vachon, who sent over a dozen players to the Division I level during his 23-year career with the Rams. “Right now, more schools can see the kids. And AAU has gone crazy. It’s all over the state. Schools are also, I think, offering scholarships at a very early age. So, with all that, with kids getting seen more and scholarships being offered earlier, you have more kids getting opportunities.”

Laughn Berthiaume, who won a pair of Class AA state titles with Esposito and Holmes at Gorham, said players now know what it takes to reach that level. “There’s more of an awareness of the things that go into making a basketball player successful,” he said.

Former Gorham High star Emily Esposito now plays for Boston University. “More girls in Maine have seen that girls from Maine can play at (the top tiers of NCAA basketball) and not be limited by where they are from,” she says. Kyle Prudhomme/Boston University athletics

The AAU piece is critical. At one time, if a Maine high schooler wanted to play for a club basketball team, she had to travel to Nashua, New Hampshire, to play for the New England Crusaders.

The Firecrackers were founded in 2007 by Brian Clement and Briggs to not only promote girls’ basketball – they both had young daughters at the time – but also to teach life skills and values. And that’s as important a piece of their success as any. College coaches have noted how the Firecrackers aren’t just good players, but good people.

The players carry those values to college. At Boston University, Esposito is valued for more than her 7.2 points per game and team-high 30 assists.

“I had a really good conversation with Emily the other day,” said BU Coach Melissa Graves. “I told her how good a job she was doing, not just on the floor, but in terms of mentoring people too. She has really developed a coaching eye, which I know is something she wants to get into. For her, it’s all about empowerment. She wants to help the kids have a great experience. How can we get better? How can I help you? How can I be a good teammate?’”

Maine has long produced Division I women’s talent, the standard of course being Cindy Blodgett, who captured the imagination of the state with her career at Lawrence High and then UMaine, where she scored an amazing 3,005 points. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the best players usually stayed home, at UMaine.

That started to change when Sarah Ryan, then known as Sarah Marshall, went from McAuley to Boston College in 2002. Over the next 10 years, players such as McAuley’s Ashley Cimino (Stanford), Cony’s Katie Rollins (Harvard), York’s Niki Taylor and Deering’s Kayla Burchill (both at Vermont) went beyond the borders.

Former McAuley High guard Allie Clement was among the first wave of Maine Firecrackers to land a NCAA Division I scholarship when she headed to Marist University in 2014. John Ewing/Staff file photo

And things took off starting in 2014, when the Firecrackers’ Allie Clement went to Marist and Olivia Smith to Dartmouth. They were the first of 17 NCAA Division I players the Firecrackers have produced.

“We just had some committed  kids and families that had a little bit of a vision,” said Brian Clement. “Honestly, we never set out and said we’re going to change things and move the needle and take girls’ basketball to another level. We had a group of kids who worked hard, did a ton of conditioning, a lot of drill work … and the results were the result of doing a lot of little things and holding them to high standards.”

They were also pretty good players, who were willing to commit to team play.

“I would say a lot of (college) coaches loved the way we competed, the camaraderie, the team environment, diving on the floor for loose balls, the Maine work ethic,” said Briggs. “Coaches would call me and ask, ‘How do you get your kids to play defense like that? How do you get them to share the ball like that? How do you get them to cheer on the bench?’”

“We would upset a lot of teams and got our name out there,” said Esposito. “No one expected at that time a Maine team to beat anyone.”

Former Gorham High star Rachele Burns, center, went on to play at the University of Maine. She now runs the Southern Maine Shock club basketball program. Michael C. York photo

Now, the Firecrackers, who have merged with XL Sports, are joined on the AAU circuit by the Southern Maine Shock, the Maine Attraction, the Maine Blue Wave in Portland, the Maine Basketball Club in Lewiston and Results Basketball in Bangor.

“Honestly, I really think it’s all about exposure,” said Rachele Burns, the former Gorham High star who graduated in 2009 and now runs Southern Maine Shock (and whose career at UMaine was hindered by numerous knee injuries). “When I was in high school, AAU was a thing, but it wasn’t like now. There were no D.C. nationals. It wasn’t about traveling all over the country to play. It was like you played in the New England area.

“So now you’ve got more exposure, and some kids are playing year-round, training for basketball even if they’re multi-sport athletes.”

LOOKING UP TO THE OLDER PLAYERS

There is one final factor in this equation: The bar has been raised and more girls want to be part of it.

“The girls who are passionate about (basketball) are definitely putting more time in,” said Vachon. “They see what’s going on.”

Esposito, who idolized Allie Clement, added, “Now I think more girls in Maine have seen that girls from Maine can play at that level and not be limited by where they are from.”

All of the former Firecrackers have come back to share their experiences with younger players, continuing their roles as role models.

“My parents always said to me, ‘Little eyes are always watching you,’” said DeWolfe, who also idolized Allie Clement. “Being a good role model was always important, being the type of kid all parents want.”

Bentley’s Maggie Whitmore, who is averaging 7.4 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Falcons, certainly admired the early Firecrackers.

“They were the pioneers, the trailblazers who paved the way and got the name out,” she said. “By the time I played, everyone knew who the Firecrackers were. Then playing with Anna and Mackenzie, they attracted coaches themselves. The team was good. So that’s kind of where Bentley came to see me.

“So, the right exposure came, they found me, they liked me I guess. And I’m here.”

Not everyone played for the Firecrackers. Being from Houlton, Kolleen Bouchard played for an AAU team her dad established.

“It was not as intense as the girls in southern Maine,” she said. “But I think it helped. It’s good to play with new people and it put me on some coaches’ radar.”

Bouchard said it’s been fun getting to know the southern Maine girls these last two years. “And it’s cool that coach keeps bringing in more and more girls from Maine,” she said.


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