Youth sports in Maine, regardless of the age level, is fundamental to communities throughout the state, and regardless of their focus — basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis — the games pull families, friends, neighbors and even the more reclusive citizens to the local gyms and fields to watch, and cheer the teams on.
Many of those trek not only to the local school for games, but to regional playoffs, whether in Augusta, Lewiston, Portland, even Houlton. Among them are proud alumni, there to “root, root, root for the home team” as the song goes.
Case in point: A dedicated group of fans representing Vinalhaven School made the 75 mile trek to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor in 2017 to watch the school’s — the community’s — girls basketball team win the state championship.
Day in, day out, those on the teams and their support network; e.g., coaches, fellow students, administrators and booster clubs, happily participate not just for the passion of the sport, but for the tradition of uniting a community.
When it is time to head to the local sporting event, be it a thrilling, nail-biting showdown against the infamous arch-rival or a blowout contest, all other unrest in the community is set aside for the game’s two- or three-hour window.
These days, high school sports dominate the local sports scene across the country, but there is often a dearth of long-rooted connections. In fact, in some parts of the country (I’m looking at you Florida) being an athlete playing for the same school as one’s own great-grandparents is thrown out the window with students attending a number of different schools.
Not so in Maine. Here, teams include athletes descending from several generations whose family members played sports for the same local high school.
When it is time for a competitive game, or playoffs, many towns essentially shut down in order to cheer for the local squads of athletes.
More than a decade ago, and long before I became a journalist, I attended an area summer baseball game to watch one of my cousins play. I couldn’t begin to tell you who won, or heck, what the names of the teams were. Come to think of it, it could have been a softball game.
What I do remember, however, is showing up for the 5:30 p.m. start, taking a place on the bleachers, and almost immediately being offered a slice of pizza from one of the other fans in the stands since, as they said, “it was going to be a long night.”
That pizza was delicious, though all pizza is unless someone dared include pineapple. What made the pizza most delicious, however, was it was offered to me from the heart. We were in it together, as fans.
What mattered, in those moments, was that we were both there to cheer our team (whatever they were called); but more importantly, to cheer our community toward victory.