Girls basketball: Friendship, unity and just hard work have kept Spruce Mountain together

Mar. 2—JAY — Their friendships and raw talent were cast and nurtured on basketball courts since those carefree days at grade school, and now the Spruce Mountain girls team is faced with another history-making proposition on Saturday.

The Phoenix (20-1) have shot at a gold ball when they square off against North champion Ellsworth (18-3) for the Class B state title at Augusta Civic Center at 7:05 p.m.

Spruce Mountain added a page to the young school's history after beating Oceanside 56-47 last Friday to collect the program's first Class B South regional crown.

Spruce Mountain coach Zach Keene immediately points to his contingent of guards as a huge asset, but there is another reason why the Phoenix have prevailed in the tournament thus far.

"Having great guard play is a huge advantage," he said. "We are lucky. We don't have one good guard. We have four or five really, really good guards that take a lot of pressure off the team in certain situations.

"The biggest thing when I look back in B South, and I said this to my coaches ... (the team) never flinched. The amount of the mental toughness and the mental acuity they showed ... if they missed a shot or turned it over, they just never flinched and they went and they did everything they could do to make sure we won every individual game."

Keene said their actions in the tournament demonstrated the Phoenix have matured into a highly competitive team.

"In the end, a different person stepped up every game when we needed it," Keene said. "Jaydn (Pingree) was great against York, Olivia (Mastine) took over the second half against Wells and obviously Aubrey (Kachnovich) had 21 points in the second half the other day against Oceanside — and they are all just excited for one kid as they are themselves."

Keene has nothing but admiration and respect for the players.

"They are really, really good people," Keene said. "Outside the basketball court, they care about doing well. They care about each other. They care about their coaches. They want to do well in everything they do.

"As good as they are as basketball players, sincerely, they are even better people ..."

It also helps to have sophomores like Avery Bessey, Miley Fournier and Riley Small on call when the going gets tough.

"(The team) competes at a level that I haven't coached," Keene said. "The way they compete together and just lay themselves on the line and to try to get in and get the job done, I haven't been a part of a team like that."


Mariyah Fournier, Emily Dubord and Lanie Walton proudly make up Spruce Mountain's senior contingent.

"As we have grown up, we've always wanted to ... win a state championship, and we finally clicked and came together and have been there for each other," Fournier, a forward, said during a round-table discussion at the high school on Wednesday afternoon. "We've bonded so much this year, like it all just worked out. They are like my other family."

Dubord, a guard, believes the Phoenix were simply not ready to make such deep incursion into the postseason last year, when Spruce Mountain lost in the regional semifinals to eventual state champion Oceanside.

"I think last year, we were not ready to go to states. I don't think we were ready to do anything," Dubord said. "We were still very young. Like our whole starting five (this season) is junior class. That's a lot of pressure, and I think we matured a lot and we've come together, and I think everything this year just clicked."

Fournier and Dubord said they relish their roles as senior leaders.

"I feel pretty good about it," Fournier said. "I never get down about when I play, when I don't play or whatever. I think everything happens for a reason, and we play a certain amount of time to win the games ..."

"The way to lead is to show up every day and doing everything right," Dubord added. "In practice, you have to work hard and other people will feed off of that. I think it starts at the top and then it just snowballs."

Fournier added that Spruce's passion is the glue and gives the Phoenix the impetus to move forward in the season.

"It kind of ignited a fire in all of us," Fournier said.

Dubord said there is another factor in the team's success — trust.

"That is, we don't get down on ourselves when we start to get down in the game ... I think we trust our teammates," Dubord said. "We trust Zach, like he is going to play the right people and someone is going to take the right shot."


Kachnovich, a guard, pointed out that this year's team is different in many ways — especially for the juniors.

"I think this year, we are much more of a team," Kachnovich said. "The past years, we've had a lot of drama and haven't been as close together, but this year we have really come together ...

"I definitely don't think our team would be where we are without our junior class. We are just like really talented, athletic (and a) strong class."

"I think we just have grown up now that we are juniors," forward Elizabeth Grondin said. "Our starting five are juniors. We've played together for a really long time.

"I think it is rare to see a group like us — a big group of really talented juniors. It is not just us. The kids coming up after us and the sophomores are really good. We are like 10 deep in practice. We are not the only ones out here. We have a lot of really good players on our team."

This group of juniors have only one thing in mind on Saturday.

"Basically, we are taking home the gold ball," Kachnovich insisted. "We worked all our lives for this. From like the beginning of the season, I've had this feeling like we are going far and do really well. I really believe we can really do it."

"They are all so laser focused on one goal and that's what it has been for them — to win a gold ball at whatever it takes," Keene said. "There is no personal agenda. Losing doesn't sit well with them."

Grondin attributes the Phoenix's high basketball IQ to the years of playing the sport at school or on travel teams.

"This group has always been special," fellow junior Mastine said. "We knew growing up that this is what we've earned. We are close in and out of basketball."

Spruce's Jadyn and Jazmine Pingree work as a tag team, and the twins have this uncanny ability to connect on a busy basketball court.

"I think it just kind of happens," Jaydn Pingree said. "It is weird."

Beyond the twins' close connection, it's the differences that have helped bring the Phoenix together.

"I think we are all different," Grondin added. "We all have a different character. We are all our own person."


Dubord and Fournier have nothing but respect for Spruce Mountain coach Zach Keene, who has been coaching the Phoenix for the past six years.

"Never a dull moment," Dubord said with a smile.

Fournier said the team welcomed Keene's child, Julian, with open arms as an unofficial part of the program.

"He had a kid," Fournier said. "Julian is like one of our babies. He is like our No. 1 fan."

"A good luck charm," Dubord chimed in.


The coronavirus pandemic that began three years ago — and enveloped this junior class's freshman season — didn't dash the fiercely determined Phoenix, who never relinquished their goal of chasing and winning a state.

"I took COVID kind of bad," Fournier said. "I went through a lot of mental health struggles and everything, and so did many people in the world. It was kind of different, like I couldn't play all the sports I played. I had to sit at home alone. It was kind of like everyone just went their own ways and no one knew each other anymore because you are so isolated. It was just crazy."

Keene said COVID-19 was devastating for his athletes.

"They are so involved in everything in school, extracurriculars and different sports, so when that happened, it was heartbreaking for all of them," Keene said. "And it was heartbreaking for me to see them have to go through that. I can't imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes."


Dubord said she is eager to join the rest of the team at Augusta Civic Center, where the state final was moved to from its originally scheduled location of Cross Insurance Arena in Portland when this weekend's predicted snowstorm forced the Maine Principals' Association to call an audible.

"I think everything is falling into the right place, and I think we've had enough hard, difficult games that we've overcome and we are used to that feeling," Dubord said.

But for Fournier and Dubord, the state game is exciting as well as a last hurrah for them. Fournier enjoyed the camaraderie, and added that basketball was an outlet for her.

"It is sad, because I probably won't be playing basketball anymore in my career." Fournier said.


The Phoenix are now the pride and joy of the communities that are served by Spruce Mountain High School, which opened in 2011.

"We've had nothing like this in the community before," Jaydn Pingree said.

"I just think it brings our community together more. After winning the regionals, our entire town knows what is going on and knowing what we are doing," Kachnovich said.

Junior guard Mary Hamblin said it is reassuring to have the community's backing.

"I just think our community's support is really important to us because definitely going into the tournament, (some) people didn't think we would make it far," Hamblin said, "and (to) just kind of prove them wrong and just have the community behind us is a good feeling."