BANGOR, Maine — The scene was similar to many other basketball gymnasiums Bryce Lausier and Henry Westrich had shared over the last few years.
But this experience was different.
Bangor High School and Hampden Academy were engaged in a spirited renewal of their rivalry, and Lausier and Westrich were right in the middle of it.
They guarded each other briefly, which brought out a subtle exchange of grins between the two to acknowledge that only a year earlier they were middle-school teammates.
“It was definitely great because we hang out all the time outside of school, and just because we don’t go to the same school anymore doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends,” said Westrich, a Bangor freshman. “When we got on the floor and noticed we were guarding each other, we both just smiled. It was just like middle-school practice all over again.”
Westrich and Lausier are two of three freshmen who starred last year at the Glenburn School and who are now major contributors to new teams as first-year high school players. Fellow Glenburn product Isaac Varney, who is at Hermon High School, took a similar path.
The three friends who developed their skills and confidence together at Glenburn’s small middle school have quickly emerged as contributors at three large Bangor-area high schools.
Varney, a 6-foot-3 forward, has averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game in helping the Hawks to a 9-1 start and the No. 1 ranking in Class B North.
Lausier, a 5-10 guard, is Hampden Academy’s No. 2 rebounder. He made four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Broncos — 8-1 and ranked second in Class A North — edge Bangor 51-50 in a Dec. 30, 2016, meeting.
Westrich, a 6-1 guard, is a key member of the rotation as a freshman at Bangor, which competes in Class AA.
“Going out and playing in the Bangor game really hit home,” said Lausier. “I had a conversation with Henry about playing against him, saying, ‘We were on the same team three months ago, and now we’re guarding each other in a varsity game.’ It’s pretty cool.”
It’s rare that three middle-school teammates become immediate impact players as freshmen at different Maine high schools, particularly at large-school programs such as Bangor, Hampden and Hermon.
The trio came from a Glenburn school with a pre-K through grade eight enrollment of about 450 students and no formal affiliation with a particular high school.
“The answer is no, you don’t see that up here,” said Bangor coach Carl Parker. “Maybe in the Portland area there have been some kids like that, but obviously they play some different competition day in and day out that leads to more experience.”
The trio’s middle-school efforts produced undefeated seasons and Penobscot Valley Middle League championships in 2015 and 2016 with enough fast breaks and slam dunks to make the Glenburn gym a popular destination for area basketball junkies.
“They’re in the gym not because somebody’s told them they have to be in the gym, and they’ve been doing this for the last three years,” said Chad LaBree, the former Glenburn “A” team coach and now the freshman coach at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.
“For kids that young to be doing that shows a level of maturity in the fact that they know where they want to go in life,” he added.
Kids being kids
Varney and Westrich grew up together, playing sports since becoming old enough to join Glenburn’s rec sports program.
“We’ve always been close friends and hung out with each other, playing baseball and basketball in the yard,” said Varney. “We’d always compete back and forth, and that just made us better players as we got older.”
Lausier, who grew up in Fort Kent, said he wasn’t an instant success on the hardwood.
“The summer going into fourth grade I made major strides, and that really helped me become the player I am now,” said Lausier, who moved with his family to Glenburn before his sixth-grade year.
“We actually played his team from Fort Kent in a tournament a couple of weeks before they moved down here and got to know him a little bit then,” said Varney. “Once he moved here, he just fit right in like family, and he’s been with us ever since.”
The Glenburn School fields “A” and “B” basketball teams, with the “A” squad typically reserved for seventh- and eighth-graders.
Lausier, Varney and Westrich all made “A” squad as sixth-graders, and there was a sense for what was to come — particularly at the travel team, rec league and AAU levels.
The trio, along with Marc Hutchings, now a Bangor High sophomore, went undefeated as seventh-graders. Last year, Lausier, Varney and Westrich led Glenburn to a combined 45-0 record between their simultaneous middle-school and travel team seasons.
“Many teams at that age have two or maybe three skilled, capable players,” said Hermon coach Mark Reed. “Glenburn had skilled kids through players eight, nine and 10, and players improve in this type of program because the environment is continuously competitive.”
The Chargers’ victories were routinely one-sided to the point that their biggest challenges came from within.
“Every day in practice the three of us would compete against each other, and it would be very competitive,” said Lausier. “When coach would split us up into three teams, we’d always be the captains, so we’d always challenge each other.”
Varney was the all-around athletic threat who could grab a rebound, dribble past the defense and finish the fast break with a two-handed dunk.
Lausier was a top ball-handler with an adept 3-point shooting touch who forced defenses not to devote too many resources to checking Varney.
And Westrich was the quiet contributor, a versatile player who provided the Chargers with whatever was needed at a given time.
“We were all a little different, but we were strong players, so it worked well for us,” said Varney.
On to high school
Interest was keen about where the trio would attend high school, but their separate decisions ultimately stemmed from academic interests and relationships made through AAU basketball.
“We’re all close friends, there wasn’t a whole lot of ego in middle school,” said Westrich. “We loved playing together, but we just ended up in different places.”
All three have faced the same challenges in their transition to high school, particularly the pace of the game and the physicality of facing opponents two or three years older.
“The physicality is a huge jump, and understanding what you need to do defensively is another huge jump,” said Hampden Academy coach Russ Bartlett.
“They’ve got to be at the top of their game every night to be able to compete against the older guys,” he added.
They all agree that increased strength will be pivotal to their continued improvement.
“We used to be the tallest and the biggest, but now since we’re playing against seniors, you can’t just back someone down as easily,” said Westrich. “It’s just a much higher level of competition, but it’s great. There’s a lot more energy playing in a varsity game in a packed gym. It’s just a crazy experience.”
Neither Lausier nor Westrich anticipated logging heavy varsity minutes as freshmen, but the skills they brought to their teams were too good for their coaches to suppress.
Expectations for immediate playing time were greater for Varney, who merely ranks among the Big East Conference leaders in scoring and rebounding.
“Isaac has been a great fit for our team, blending easily with other players in our program,” said Reed. “Everybody recognizes him as a very good basketball player, but he’s an even better person. He is a competitor, he plays cerebrally, and he has tremendous poise.”
Perhaps the lone downside of the players’ different high school landing spots is the lack of time they have during basketball season for friendship.
“We often end up at the Glenburn gym to watch our younger siblings play or just to see old friends who are a year younger play, and we talk then,” said Westrich. “We don’t see each other a lot right now, but we get to see each other some.”
Sometimes a subtle grin near midcourt will just have to do.