Weekends at Maine University begin early Friday afternoon when a big, boxlike green truck, with the fancy yellow inscription, “Eastern Maine Egg Company,” goes rumbling south toward Orono on highway 2A. The driver is an enterprising young man known to most of Maine’s 4,400 students as Cannonball. Cannonball is working his way through school by driving a 500-mile route every weekend to pick up eggs from farms and deliver them to the big cities. At the start of his trip Maine students stand on the highway and hoot and holler “Caaaanonball” as he drives past. Unfortunately for Cannonball, he misses all the fun he ushers in, especially this winter, when everybody else goes (or tries to go) to the basketball games.
Two weeks ago, for example, Maine opened its home schedule against Bates College. As was often the case last year, the 3,100-seat Memorial Gymnasium was filled two hours before the tip-off. But this time the state fire marshal locked the doors in the faces of more than 350 students who were waving their season tickets frantically in the cold night air. This basketball fever is the result of a theory they have in Maine: “If all the good high school basketball players in the state go to Maine University, they will surely play on a winning team.” Everyone on campus believes in this idea and expresses it repeatedly, but until two years ago it made little sense. Maine consistently lost more games than it won, and the school twice dropped the sport for periods up to 10 years because of lack of interest. There were no athletic scholarships and no full-time coach, and there was little incentive for talented players to stay in the state. Few of them did. There are still no athletic scholarships, but in 1958 Maine decided to hire a full-time coach. The happy choice was Brian McCall, a tall, handsome 38-year-old who set a season scoring record at Dayton University in 1949 and then established a solid coaching record in Ohio high schools.
Since McCall arrived, his teams have won 38 of 49 games, including the first 14 last year, when they almost ended Connecticut’s 10-year stranglehold on the championship of the Yankee Conference. Although they missed the Yankee title, they did win the trophy in the State Series, in which Bowdoin, Bates and Colby, the state’s other leading colleges, compete. It was Maine’s first State Series victory in 10 years. It has never won the Yankee crown. The chances are good it will win both this year.
McCall stresses speed
Maine athletes used to play basketball more conservatively than their fathers play politics, but all that has been changed by McCall. “Our philosophy is speed,” he explained the other day in his deep, radio-announcer voice. “Our offense is based on individualism because we don’t want any boy to become mechanical. Anytime a player has a shot, he takes it.” McCall’s offense rolled up 78 points a game last year, but it is the defense that has done most to win games. “My theory is that teams have trouble adjusting,” McCall says, “so we use three or four defenses against everybody.” But because his material is limited, McCall seldom uses the man-for-man system, and he does not care to risk emergency measures such as the full-court press. “Our ‘press’ is to get ahead early and make the opponents come to us. Our boys must believe in their scoring ability.”
McCall’s boys do just that. Last Wednesday night, for example, they played archrival Colby College. McCall was facing one of the few opponents that does not enjoy a height advantage over Maine, but he employed his usual variety of shifting zone defenses anyway, planning to force Colby to shoot from outside.
The success of two of his basic ideas gave Maine a 50-36 half-time advantage. First, Maine did take an early lead, and, sure enough, Colby was soon forcing bad shots to stay in the game. Second, holding the lead enabled Maine to play defense “safely”—it did not have to risk fouling in desperation attempts to get the ball. Colby, pressing, fouled often. This in turn allowed Maine to build its lead even more on free throws. (McCall has persuaded his players that more games are decided from the foul line than from the field, and they have responded by making 76% of their free throws this year.) Nevertheless, in the second half one of those inexplicable cold streaks hit Maine, and Colby, scoring from everywhere, pulled up suddenly to trail by only 65-62. Maine refused to panic. Every player continued to try his normal shots, and one, a poker-faced, 5-foot-8 guard named Wayne Champeon, calmly fired four straight baskets. Maine’s final margin of nine points, significantly, was built on free throws, since both teams made 28 field goals.
McCall’s faith in his theories was tested again on the weekend when Vermont came to Orono for two games. Friday night the visitors began beating Maine at its own game, hitting more than 50% from the floor to take an early 30-23 lead. Still Maine refrained from switching to a man-for-man defense, and no one showed the slightest sign of worry. Champeon, in fact, even smiled slyly at his man before letting fly with one of his whistling passes. Then the Maine front line, high-scoring Forwards Don Sturgeon and Larry Schiner and scrappy Center Jon Ingalls, began to wear down Vermont’s remarkable 6-foot-2 sophomore, Benny Becton. It was Becton’s ability to spring high above the basket that had kept his team ahead. Maine’s best shot, Guard Skip Chappelle, hit a long one-hander for a 40-38 lead at the half with two seconds left. After the intermission Chappelle hit with four soft, arching jump shots and had 31 points before McCall took him out, with Maine leading 71-49. “Now they have to catch us,” McCall said, and promptly surprised Vermont by putting his boys into a man-for-man defense. Maine won 94-63. The next afternoon the starters played less than half the game as the team took its fourth in a row 85-51. Chappelle played long enough to make his 26th consecutive free throw, and the reserves, who are much bigger than the regulars, showed well.
The home-grown talent, obviously, is now turning up on the Maine campus, and it’s good. “It ought to be,” one student remarked last week. “Most of the kids don’t even play football up in Aroostook County. They’re all out picking potatoes that time of year.” Whatever the reason, it is finally being demonstrated that “if all the good high school basketball players….”