The Ferry Game
With his sharp suit and shaved head, Mike Johnson looks like he should be coaching in the NBA instead of Maine's Class D. But no NBA team's itinerary includes a seventy-five-minute ferry ride across Penobscot Bay, followed by a stop at a grocery store. Johnson, who coaches the Vinalhaven boys' varsity, and Torry Pratt, who coaches the girls', wait aboard a bus outside the Hannaford Supermarket in Rockland while their charges buy supplies. The kids have to fortify themselves to play Richmond High School on Friday night and again on Saturday morning.Since the ferry doesn't run after dark, weekend doubleheaders are the only practical way to play a full schedule. Hosting back-to-back games is a lot to ask of their mainland opponents. But for Vinalhaven, one of Maine's three island high schools, basketball is as much an exercise in cooperation as competition.
Vinalhaven is running late, so Johnson has allotted just fifteen minutes for the grocery stop. A strong southwest wind threatened to cancel their trip altogether. As it was, their departure on the Captain Charles Philbrook was delayed by ninety minutes. "Days like today are frustrating," says Johnson, thirty-two, who juggles his coaching duties with a full-time job as a sternman on a lobsterboat. "You have to take off a half a day of work, and you're still not sure if the next boat's going. But really it's not any harder than you make it on yourself."
He's dealt with worse. For instance, there was that Jackman trip, which required a 160-mile bus ride after the ferry crossing. "Halfway through the [Saturday] game, come to find out there's a nor'easter blowing in," Johnson says. "Upon hearing that, we knew there might not be a boat. It turns out that not only was there no ferry for us to get back Saturday night, but there were no ferries all day Sunday either. And a raging snowstorm."
After a hairy bus ride back to the Rockland ferry terminal, the team was stranded, fifteen miles from home as the gull flies. "We were virtually snowbound in a motel for thirty-six hours," Johnson says. "If NFL football hadn't been on and Domino's hadn't been running, we would have been in a lot of trouble."
Not that he's complaining. "I'm from the island, and I've played the ferry game my whole life," he says. "And most of these kids have grown up on the island, so they accept [the ferry ride] as just part of the trip."
Another routine part of the trip is staying with host families on the mainland. The coaches look forward to this as a chance to catch up with old friends, such as Richmond boys' coach Paul Lancaster, who will put on a dinner party for the Vinalhaven staff after tonight's game. But the kids won't know whose family they're staying with until the game is over. So, as Philip Hopkins, Vinalhaven Class of '07, notes, he might trade elbows with a Richmond player under the basket, "and then I'll have to sleep in his room." He laughs. "That'll be good."
Actually, says Coach Pratt, that is good. "It's a great learning experience for the kids, because you can be rivals on the court, and then you've got to live with each other," she says.
That can apply to the adults as well. Pratt recalls a game on Vinalhaven when she "was reaming out the referees. Then they all got stuck over [because of the weather], and we ended up spending some time together. So we learn that lesson, too."
"We try to teach them things that go beyond basketball," Coach Johnson says. Each week during the season, for example, the boys' team gathers for dinner at a different player's house. The dinners include a ritual called "The King of the Moment," in which each player tells the others about his recent good deeds away from the basketball court. The reigning "King of the Moment" then chooses his successor and presents him with a king from a chess set to keep until the next dinner. "I stole that from The Count of Monte Cristo," Johnson says.
To emphasize the interdependence of island life, Johnson stresses the importance of doing "the little things that nobody knows about. Like, if it's a foggy day and somebody left their headlights on, don't knock on the door and tell them — just go ahead and shut the lights off. If you get caught, it doesn't count."
As the kids reboard the bus at the supermarket, one of them commits a conspicuous good deed by offering Johnson a muffin. The coach politely declines. The players' haul ranges from celebrity-gossip magazines to an entire roast chicken. Some kids are clearly enjoying this off-island excursion — but not all of them. "When I get over here I'm overwhelmed by all the people," says Alex Young, Vinalhaven Class of '08.
As for the trappings of life on the mainland, Alex says, "I'm not used to having a mall or anything, so it's not like I'm missing it."
Alex would just as soon play every game at home. "Basketball is the biggest sport out there," she says, "so the whole community pretty much revolves around it."
Alex's family has lived on Vinalhaven for generations. Her twin sister, Libby, is a cheerleader; her cousin, Meagan Davidson, also plays on the team. But tonight Alex will be staying with a different family, one she hasn't met yet.
Yes, she says as the bus rolls through the winter dusk toward Richmond, "I'm a little nervous."
Come on, you white girls!" Denise Gibbs yells from the bleachers in the Richmond High School gym.
It takes a moment to realize you've been had. Gibbs is referring to the color of the home team's uniforms. Still, the remark resonates. Gibbs is the adoptive mother of two Richmond High students, both nonwhite. "My imports," she calls them.
Gregory Gibbs, who plays guard for the boys' team, is an African-American who was born in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "But he's a Maine boy now," Denise says. Her daughter, a cheerleader, is from India. "The adoption agency told us she had to have an Indian name," Denise says, "so we just called her India." Denise's third child, twenty-year-old Josh, is also from India.
The Richmond High Bobcats are giving the undefeated Vinalhaven Vikings a battle. The island girls, who barely had time to change before warm-ups, play a sloppy first half that brings a tongue-lashing from Coach Pratt. But they get a second wind in the second half and put pesky Richmond away with a ten-to-nothing run at the end of the third quarter. From there they cruise to their tenth straight win.
Their hosts harbor no hard feelings. Gibbs, a home-health nurse, and her husband, Roger, a supervisor at Bath Iron Works, look forward to welcoming Vinalhaven players into their home for the night. "We've always had boys," Denise says. "I want girls for a change." That will give India an opportunity to play hostess.
"When I was a kid we stayed in homes over there," Denise says. "Those Vinalhaven kids know how to have fun, trust me. That's why they're coming to my house — so I'll know what they're doing." She laughs.
Before the Gibbs family finds out which girls will join them, they have to wait for the boys to play. The schools reverse roles in the second game, with Richmond the clear favorite. Vinalhaven has just one senior, and their inexperience leads to a slew of turnovers. Barely a minute into the game they trail seven to nothing. By the end of the first quarter they're down by twenty-six. The final margin is fifty.
Despite the lopsided loss, Vinalhaven coach Mike Johnson's demeanor doesn't change. Johnson knows his kids were overmatched, "but they listen and they try really hard, and that's all you can ask," he says.
The Richmond High Booster Club treats kids from both schools to a pizza party, then the Vinalhaven coaches gather their players to be sure each has been assigned to a host family. Three island girls join the Gibbs family's miniature melting pot: forwards Flora Drury and Nikki Osgood — and guard Alex Young, who had confessed to feeling overwhelmed on her visits to the mainland.
On Saturday morning, Alex smiles as she delivers the verdict on her stay: "It was fun." She and her teammates watched Dodgeball with the Gibbs kids.
"I think those girls stayed up until two o'clock," Denise reports.
It shows. The players seem listless at the 9 a.m. tip-off. Low sunlight streams through the glass panels in the gym doors, giving the worn hardwood a preternatural gleam. Sleepy eyes squint. There are fewer spectators than there were on Friday night; the empty bleachers amplify the sneaker squeaks.
But John Drury, Flora's father, is back, watching his daughter play for the second time in fifteen hours. "These Saturday games are always kinda dozy," he says.
It takes commitment for island parents to support their kids' teams. As soon as the girls' game ends, Drury will be off to his son Keith's middle-school game at St. George. That makes for a long day on the mainland.
Like most Vinalhaven parents, Drury would prefer to stay home and watch his kids play in the school's spacious, modern gym, part of a new campus that opened in 2003. For Drury, an assistant soccer coach, the school came at a cost beyond the multimillion-dollar price tag: The new gym sits on the old soccer field. Until the new field is ready, Vinalhaven must play all its soccer games on the road.
Drury smiles ruefully as he mentions this. Here comes another tale of can't-get-there-from-here.
It happened during the 2004 soccer season. Vinalhaven was playing at Islesboro, a trip that required two ferry rides: Vinalhaven to Rockland, and Lincolnville to Islesboro. Then the game went into double overtime, which caused the team to miss the last boat back to Vinalhaven. To avoid spending the night in Rockland, they took the last ferry to North Haven, then hopped on a lobsterboat for the five-minute ride across the Fox Island Thorofare. "So that trip was six bus rides and five boat rides," Drury says.
After hearing enough stories like that, people might wonder if interscholastic sports are worth the hassle for Maine's island high schools. A pretty good answer comes after Vinalhaven and Richmond wrap up their doubleheader. It's in the form of a hug, glimpsed amid the commotion as the kids file out of the gym. India Gibbs and Flora Drury, two girls who didn't know each other a day earlier, are saying goodbye.
Over and Back
Offshore basketball is a different ballgame
Mainland schools that travel offshore to play basketball had better factor pitch-and-roll into their game plans along with the pick-and-roll. Seasickness isn't uncommon, especially among first-time visitors. And mainlanders get no sympathy from Vinalhaven girls' coach Torry Pratt. "You hope [the ferry crossing] is a little bit rough so they won't be ready to play," Pratt says with a laugh. "Home-court advantage!"
At least Vinalhaven's home court is regulation size. On nearby North Haven, spectators crowd the sidelines of the undersized gymnasium, creating a more intimate environment than most kids are used to. But if the gym is cozy during the game, it is much less so afterward, when visiting teams bed down in it. Unlike Vinalhaven, North Haven doesn't put the kids up with host families. "They bring sleeping bags and air mattresses, and some get very creative with the chairs and the bleachers," says North Haven athletic director Bridget Hopkins.
Some visiting schools put the boys in the gym and the girls in Nancy's Body Shop, an exercise studio. Neither will ever be listed in Fodor's. "I've been to the [studio] three times, and it seemed to get progressively worse each time," says Angela Littlefield, Class of '05 at Seacoast Christian Academy in South Berwick. "The first time the toilet clogged. The last time the water stayed on, and then we blew a circuit. We didn't get to bed until probably 1:30 a.m., and we had to be up by six o'clock in the morning. We were exhausted and sore."
And they had to play another game, which tipped off at 8:30 a.m. to allow them to catch the 12:30 ferry home.
Despite all the problems, Littlefield doesn't hesitate when asked if her trips to North Haven were rewarding. "Absolutely," she says. "It's definitely different out there."
Seacoast Christian boys' coach Thomas Stinglen agrees. "It was an experience for me, because I'm originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and quite honestly I didn't realize that there were whole communities on islands out there," he says. "So getting to see them was a real pleasure. We joked with them about going home to the big city — South Berwick."
Last season, Seacoast Christian played two island schools in less than a week. They made a 280-mile round-trip to Islesboro on Tuesday, then went back up the coast on Friday to play at North Haven.
Stinglen preferred the Islesboro trip, which he describes as "a little bit longer drive [to the Lincolnville terminal] and a much shorter ferry ride." And because Islesboro has a water taxi, Seacoast Christian could return to the mainland after the Tuesday night game. "I don't recall what time it was, but it was dark, it was cold, and everything was covered in ice," Stinglen says. "You could hear it crunching underneath. I don't know how the captain could see where he was going."
Still, Stinglen preferred an icy late-night crossing to camping on the hardwood. "My sleeping-on-the-gym-floor days are over," he says.
So on the North Haven trip, Stinglen put his team up at the island's only year-round B&B. "We only had five boys going up, so expense-wise we were able to swing it," he says.
With a good night's rest, Seacoast Christian rebounded from a twenty-five-point loss on Friday night to win on Saturday morning. "But that trip was still a tough go," Stinglen says. "We had a three-hour drive and an hour ferry ride. Then almost as soon as we walked into the gym we were playing the game. That's a tough spot to put the boys in. And of course sleeping on the gym floor afterward wouldn't help any. So [staying in the inn] made it more of an equal playing field."
But don't get the idea that the island schools have all the breaks. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Vinalhaven has 1,235 year-round residents, Islesboro 603, and North Haven just 381. These sparse populations produce enrollments that are scant even by Class D standards (229 students or fewer). Consider what Islesboro boys' head coach Don Johnson III faced at the start of last season. "My first week of practice I only had four kids," Johnson says. "I ended up pretty much going house to house" recruiting more players. He ended up with ten.
The girls' team had nine players, several of whom doubled as cheerleaders for the boys. Islesboro girls' assistant coach Apryl Hatch puts the numbers in perspective: "The high school only has twenty-five students, and nineteen of them play basketball."
Most mainland opponents recognize the island schools' limitations and are willing to accommodate them, even if it means suffering a little seasickness. Besides, the visitors get something out of the experience, too. "When we go over [to Vinalhaven]," Richmond boys' coach Paul Lancaster says, "the kids get a perspective on what it's like to live on an island, even if it's for one night."