Historic night at the Casco Gym
By Wayne E. Rivet
CASCO — Over the years, Matt Hancock has seen some impressive basketball played in the friendly confines of the Casco Town Gym.
He saw a “first” Saturday night.
As coach of the Maine Maniacs, a collection of girls ages 13 from across the state, Hancock was asked to pit his AAU basketball team against a contingent from Shinagawa, Japan as part of a Sports Exchange program.
The program began in 1984 as part of a sister-city relationship between Portland, Maine and Shinagawa, Japan. Each year, two sports teams host an American group and then travel to the USA. This year, the two sports were girls’ basketball and baseball.
Taking part in the basketball trip were CeCe Hancock of Casco, a freshman this fall at Lake Region High School and Lexi L’Heureux-Carland of Fryeburg, a freshman this fall at Fryeburg Academy. Lexi’s mother, Billie, also made the trip as a coach.
Nathan Smith, 14, and Jordan Williams, 14, both of Naples were members of the USA baseball team. Nathan is a first baseman, third baseman, pitcher and catcher, while Jordan is a shortstop, catcher and pitcher.
The group’s trip went from July 22 to Aug. 1.
The Shingawa players arrived in the United States on Aug. 7 and will return to Japan on Aug. 18. During their stays, players resided with host families.
“I felt everything was crowded over there. My host family didn’t have a car so we took the train, and it was always crowded. The houses are small so everything was crowded in there,” CeCe said. “I didn’t like the raw fish. I didn’t want to insult them by not trying it. It’s been great making new friends. We all have each others’ e-mails and plan to keep in touch.”
Initially, the Shinagawa-Maniacs game was scheduled to be played at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, but Hancock decided what better way to expose the Japanese team to the roots of Maine basketball than to play in an “old time” gymnasium.
“They’re here to learn more about American basketball — how we do things and our style of play. Right now, the world is trying to catch up with us, especially on the women’s side,” Hancock said.
After a stop at Portland Headlight and LL Bean, the Shinagawa players entered the Casco Community Center gym and immediately scanned their surroundings. They were surprised to see the “tight” end lines — just a few inches separate the court end line and the back wall. Of course, the Shinagawa players were “out-sized” by their American opponents, who sported 6-foot-2 center Emily Jacques of Auburn and 6-foot Nia Irving of Lawrence.
Prior to tip off before a packed house, the players were introduced. Shinagawa players stepped forward, raised one arm to the crowd and bowed. Each country’s national anthem was played, and the teams exchanged gifts at halfcourt.
As expected, the Maniacs dominated the paint, getting several second chance opportunities, which led to a 18-6 first quarter lead. Local guards CeCe Hancock and Spencer True, however, experienced the strength of the Shinagawa team — speed and tenacity. When the Japanese girls rebounded the ball after a miss, they pushed the ball quickly up the floor. The crowd cheered on the visitors each time they scored or made a good defensive play.
“They were pretty fast, and most of the time they liked to flip the ball underhand up for shots,” CeCe noticed. “They communicate a lot better than we do.”
The Maniacs maintained a 12-point lead at the half. Looking more for their outside offense, the Maniacs pulled away in the third quarter after hitting several 3-point shots for a 42-22 advantage. The Maniacs won the game 58-32, but everyone left the gym pretty proud of the experience.
“I got to know them better when they came here, and now we’re really close. I found most of the girls to be outgoing, and they speak English quite well,” CeCe said. “Most of the girls slept over my house and they really don’t eat junk food. We were eating a lot of junk food and they said, ‘No.’ They ate hamburgers and a lot of vegetables and fruit. They said we eat a lot more than they do. Most of the girls hadn’t been out of their country before, and they really liked Maine.”
About the Maniacs
Team: Maine Maniacs
Coaches: Matt Hancock and Steve Howe
Roster: Caitlyn Kane of Mt. Blue H.S., Maddie Hasson of South Portland H.S., Dominique Lewis of Lawrence H.S., Montana Braxton of Cape Elizabeth H.S., Ashley Howe of Thornton Academy, Margaret Hatch of Greely H.S., Spencer True of Lake Region H.S., Nia Irving of Lawrence H.S., Emily Jacques of Edward Little H.S. and CeCe Hancock of Lake Region H.S.
History: Matt Hancock has coached this group of girls since they were in sixth grade. The Maniacs are the two time, back-to-back Maine AAU Girls’ State Champions and have competed at the AAU Nationals and other prestigious regional tournaments for the past two years. This year, the Maniacs won their pools and advanced to the medal rounds at both the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Fla. and also at the Gym Ratz Tournament in Albany. The Maniacs advanced through the National medal rounds before losing an incredible 47-46 overtime game in the Sweet 16 to the Philadelphia Comets. In the ranking rounds the Maniacs won their next two games before falling to the Mobile (AL) Tigers. The Maniacs ended the season as the #11 13-U team in the country.