BAR HARBOR — Love them or hate them, road trips to Aroostook County are a way of life for local high school sports teams.
With a limited number of high schools scattered throughout the 20,000 square miles that span the state’s five easternmost counties, traveling long distances for games throughout the season is a must for teams in the region. Matchups between Hancock County and Aroostook County opponents are among the longest of these treks, which force some teams to make trips that total 10 hours over both legs.
Even schools that don’t schedule regular-season games in the area occasionally travel to “The County” for playoff games, which is what the Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ basketball team had to do when it faced Fort Fairfield in the Class D North playoffs three years ago.
“I swear it took us nearly five hours,” Deer Isle-Stonington Head Coach Randy Shepard said. “When you live around here, you have to travel. That’s just the way it is.”
One of the most frequently scheduled arrangements between schools in the two counties pits the Ellsworth and MDI varsity teams against Caribou and Presque Isle. The two teams participate in the same conference in nearly every sport offered by both schools, a setup that requires multiple bus rides between the state’s northern reaches and coastal lands no matter the season.
“It’s long, and it’s easy to get bus legs if you’re not careful,” said Andy Pooler, who makes the trip two or three times per year as head coach of both the Ellsworth girls’ basketball team and the MDI baseball team. “You have both teams on the same crowded bus, and the drive up isn’t easy.”
Basketball meetings between the two factions are particularly challenging. Ellsworth and MDI play four of their 18 regular-season games against Caribou and Presque Isle, which battle the Eagles and Trojans on back-to-back days in one county in December before traveling to the other at the end of January to do the same.
In order to save on fuel costs and avoid more than a day’s worth of combined travel over the course of each season, the road teams stay in hotels following their Friday night games. As soon as the Saturday contests come to a close, the players pack the buses and head home, with their parents traveling close behind them.
“Parents pretty much do everything separate [for basketball]. Sometimes they will book rooms in the same hotel, but a lot of them will stay in a different hotel and travel in their own vehicles and everything,” Ellsworth senior Zach Harris said. “It’s pretty separated, but they still come and support us, which is awesome and very important to us.”
To add to the importance of the weekend, all eight varsity teams are frequently among the state’s best.
“No matter who you are, those two days are going to test you,” Pooler said. “You’re up against some of the best teams in the state in what’s really not even two full days. Even when you’re at home, it’s a different environment.”
The state’s abundant wildlife also has been known to affect trips to The County. Such was the case with the John Bapst girls’ basketball team, which had a startling encounter on its trip to Presque Isle last week when a wild turkey flew into the bus windshield and made a large crack on the side of the glass.
Fortunately for the John Bapst players and coaches, the team made the trip on a large coach bus rather than a typical school bus, just as the MDI cheer team had done two weeks earlier. That minimized the damage to the window and allowed the team to continue its drive without needing to stop for repairs.
“It just happened out of nowhere, but our bus driver did a good job of handling the situation,” said John Bapst Head Coach Chris Woodside. “It’s a good thing it was just a turkey and not a moose or a large deer because that would have been a much bigger problem, obviously.”
Before the team got back on the road, the John Bapst players decided to hold a mock funeral for it. They also named it “Sherman” in honor of the Aroostook County town through which they had been passing at the time.
Even for Woodside, who’s journeyed across the state for games many times before as a player and coach at Calais, the experience was one of a kind and a reminder of what can take place on long road trips along I-95’s northern corridor.
“I guess you never know what you’re going to see when you’re going through The County,” Woodside said. “It’s a big area, and a lot can happen.”