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Elite basketball for Maine girls

By Nathan Tsukroff

SACO – “The Firecrackers will continue to be the elite basketball club in Maine” for girls, according to Coach Abiola “Abi” Davids, after merging into the XL Sports World program in March.

For the last five years, Davids has run the XL Thunder basketball program, which features around 46 teams for boys and girls. That program will now be a feeder to the Firecrackers, he said. “So if you’re good enough to play for the Firecrackers, you will have gone through the XL Thunder system.”

Ella Pelletier, playing with the Maine Firecrackers eighth-grade girls team, drives past opponents from Black Bear North in a recent game at the Lewiston Armory. (Tsukroff photo)

The teams compete under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union, which is one of the largest, non-profit, volunteer, multi-sport event organizations in the world. The AAU helps promote and develop amateur sports and physical fitness programs. It was founded in 1888 with the goal of creating common standards in sports.

The Maine Firecrackers was created in 2005 by Don Briggs and Brian Clement, exclusively for girl players. “We had daughters of similar age,” and their teams competed against each other. “We were kind of the new to the whole AAU world, and we said, hey, wouldn’t it be great if we just kind of took a couple of our better players and did an extended season, and see how that went.”

The first team was for fifth graders. While Briggs and Clement initially planned for just the one team, after a couple of years of play, their younger daughters couldn’t compete at the same level as their older siblings, so Briggs and Clement added teams for the different school grade levels.

Over the years, the program grew to it’s current level, but, “A lot of it has been unplanned!” Briggs said. The program was started to provide educational opportunities for young women outside of the state of Maine through leadership training, high level sport specific coaching, and college coach visibility.

There was interest from local groups in taking over the Firecrackers program the past three or four years, but Briggs said they wanted to be sure the Firecrackers had “a good home, that people appreciated the history, and the sacrifice that some of those early teams made to build the brand.”

 “I’ve gotten to know Abi over the past two or three years, and it just felt like he was the right person” to take over the program, Briggs said. The merger was not about finding the highest bidder, but about finding someone who had a good character and respect for the history of the program, he said.

Maine Firecrackers player Lexi Morin pulls down a rebound in a recent game against Black Bear North at the Lewiston Armory. The Firecrackers is an elite basketball program for girls in fifth through twelfth grades in southern Maine, under the AAU program. (Tsukroff photo)

Davids said that Briggs and Clement “did a phenomenal job with the program, and have sent girls to some of the biggest and best schools to play basketball. They should be awarded all of the credit for the success of the Maine Firecrackers.”

The purpose of the Firecrackers is “to build self-confidence and to set them apart from everybody else,” he said.

The Firecrackers “try to have the best girls in Maine in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade, along with teams for seventh and eighth grade, “and when you get to high school, there are three teams. There are two national teams and there’s one regional team. That’s when grades are thrown out the window, and it’s just the best of the best.”

While the Firecrackers is a local organization from Maine, “They play on a national stage,” he said. “They go to tournaments in the deep south, we go to tournaments in Atlantic City, in (Washington) DC, in Chicago.”

Game play starts in the spring. The middle school teams start in March, while the high school teams practice in March and start competition in April each year, playing through the summer.

Davids coaches the eighth-grade Firecrackers team, which draws players from throughout southern Maine, including Wells, Yarmouth, Saco, Brunswick, Oxford Hills, and Gorham. There are designated coaches for each of the other teams.

Davids was born in Nigeria, grew up in England and played for several years on the national team after attending college in New Hampshire in the US.  

Coach Abi Davids guides players on strategy during halftime of a recent eighth-grade Maine Firecrackers basketball game. The Firecrackers recently merged with the XL Sports World program in Saco to provide girls with an elite basketball program in southern Maine. (Tsukroff photo)

“For me it’s about holding people accountable, and building as much confidence” in a person as possible, he said. With basketball, “the winning and the losing is secondary to teaching life lessons.”

In Lewiston-Auburn, there is the Maine Basketball Club, which is now run by Kristina Blais and has 11 girls teams and 12 boys teams, all under the AAU program. The Black Bear North program provides play for boys and girls in the greater-Bangor area.

Teams competed in the Maine Amateur Basketball State Championships the first two weekends in April.

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