WALDOBORO — The Maine United U15 team — led by former Nokomis Regional High School of Newport standout Cooper Flagg — certainly put Maine on the national basketball map.

Flagg, along with his eight teammates, put on a show at the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) Peach Jam Sunday through Sunday, July 17-24 as they finished one of the final eight in their age group.

And for 15-year-old Gabe Lash of Waldoboro? Well, he had one of the best seats in the house for the action.

Lash, who will be a Medomak Valley High School sophomore in the fall, perhaps has flown under the radar as one of those nine heartbeats who represented the Pine Tree State as he missed the majority of the team’s spring season due to injury. But he healed and returned in time for the Peach Jam and logged minutes on the court with high-profile college coaches and National Basketball Association players in attendance.

Maine United 15U basketball team includes, front from left, Kaden Bedard, Jace Bessey, Sammy Nzeyimana and Leo McNabb; and back, Cooper Flagg, Landon Clark, Gabe Lash, Ace Flagg and Dawson Townsend. Photo courtesy of Betsy Lash

The Peach Jam, in its 26th year, essentially is a national recruiting showcase for the nation’s top young basketball players.

“We’re the first team from Maine to ever get to this tournament,” said the 6-foot-4-inch Lash. “A lot of these teams are looking at this Maine team saying, “Who are these kids?’ They know Cooper, but we knew we could compete and we were looking at this tournament like, ‘We can win this thing.’ ”

The top two teams in each of the four pools advanced to the Elite Eight of the tournament. Unfortunately for Maine United, it matched up with Nightrydas Elite — led by Cameron Boozer, the son of former NBA player Carlos Boozer — and were eliminated 79-36.

Nightrydas Elite went on to win the 15U title.

For Lash — who overcame a terrible foot injury along the way — it has been the culmination of nearly two years of hard work. And a reminder of the hard work that lay ahead for the youngster.

Start of journey

Early in the summer of 2020, Lash began to train at Results Basketball in Bangor with Matt MacKenzie, a former Medomak Valley standout and current assistant coach of the Husson University of Bangor women’s team.

In his progression, MacKenzie recommended Lash to coaches Andy Bedard and Kelly Bowman-Flagg to potentially try out for Maine United eighth-grade team.

Lash was invited to join the team, but initially did not travel with the team to some of their early tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The young Panther later joined the team, which did well in out-of-state tournaments, winning high-profile events in Virginia and Massachusetts.

“They eased Gabe in and let him dip his toes into that level,” said his father Matt Lash, who is the MVHS and Medomak Middle School athletic director. “And he got more confident and contributed toward the end of that season. It was a great experience for him. New friends, being challenged at a high level, they welcomed him in and he fit in well. He was thrilled to keep going with it.”

As Gabe  eyed returning to Maine United the following year — which would be at the U15 level — he understood a difficult decision lay ahead.

Gabe always has had two loves. Basketball and baseball (he also enjoys football). His father said, “Baseball was probably 1A and basketball 1B. But he knew in order to travel to tournaments all over the country, he wouldn’t be able to play baseball. That decision in itself was not easy.”

So Gabe, a talented pitcher and all-around diamond athlete, did not play for the Panther baseball squad as a freshman.

“I made that decision in late-December when I knew I could only do one or the other,” said Gabe. “It was a really hard conversation. Baseball was my sport growing up. But when I got this opportunity in eighth grade, things really changed. I think basketball is now my number one sport.”

“He recognized this possibly could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the biggest league and tournament in the country for high school basketball,” added his dad.

Injury derails momentum

As a freshman at Medomak Valley, Gabe made the varsity basketball team and began to contribute on the floor toward the end of the regular season. He also logged quality minutes in the Class B South tournament, which helped the Panthers advance to the regional championship game.

Gabe was preparing weeks later for another season of growth with Maine United — now at the U15 level — before those aspirations spun sideways.

“I was at an undergrad game,” he said. “I dove for the ball and a kid just landed right on my ankle. At first I thought it was just a sprain, little injury, but after we went to the hospital we saw it was broken.”

Lash broke the talis bone in his foot and three days later had surgery and a screw inserted to repair it.

Matt, who has been an AD for nearly 20 years and once suffered a foot injury playing college basketball, “knew what that diagnosis meant to him and his involvement in playing for Maine United that spring.”

“I could relate,” Matt said. “I knew what challenge he had ahead of him in terms of recovering, strengthening and getting back to game shape. It was pretty devastating to him, but he had a good mindset and approach and he was positive and ready to get to work and get back as soon as he could.”

It was about a three-month recovery period. In that time Gabe focused more on core strength and upper body, while it was apparent his lower body would be atrophied in the wake of his recovery.

“We did what exercises we could to keep his quads and hamstrings strengthened in that leg, but there’s nothing you can do with a calf muscle when you’re in a boot,” said his dad. “It was not an easy process.”

Maine United soldiered on without him and, ultimately, finished a combined 7-1 in Nike Elite Youth Basketball League tournaments in Florida and Indiana, which solidified their berth at the Peach Jam.

Still, his coach and teammates wanted Gabe back in the fold as soon as he was able to travel with the team. He was not healed enough from his surgery to attend the Florida tournament, but made it to Indiana and to several other tournaments outside the EYBL along the way.

In mid-June, Gabe resumed basketball activities.

“The team and the coaches wanted him to be involved as much as possible,” said Matt. “So we did everything we could to keep him involved that way.”

“That was the favorite part of my spring,” said Gabe. “The bonding with them and letting me be with them really helped me through this injury.”

The injury, as they often are, was bad luck.

“Had he played the whole spring circuit and practiced with them regularly, he could have contributed [more],” said Matt. “But he knew where he was on the team and it was a great opportunity for him and a wonderful experience.”

What an experience

Maine United did not play in the next few EYBL tournaments as it had clinched its berth in the Peach Cup by amassing a plus-.500 record in EYBL play.

The time off allowed Flagg, one of the nation’s top handful of young players, to be available to help the United States win the gold medal in the FIBA U17 World Cup in Spain.

Flagg has been highly touted since leading the Warriors to the Class A state basketball title in March and has been offered Division I scholarships to high-profile universities such as Duke, Michigan, West Virginia, UCLA and Iowa, among others.

“The world knows him as one of the best players in the Class of 2025, but me and my teammates and our coaches know him as a humble person, great teammate and a player that wants to be the best,” said Gabe. “For us, he’s a great friend. And he wants us to get better and he makes us better.”

“He’s a stat filler,” added Matt of Flagg. “He does everything. And he does it in a way that is unselfish. He finds teammates, he blocks shots, he passes the ball, he scores it, steals, you name it. He does everything, but he does it humbly.”

Maine United went 3-1 in its pool at the Peach Cup, as the top two teams from the four pools advanced to the Elite Eight.

The anticipated game between Maine United and Nightrydas Elite was such a draw, it had to be moved to a larger venue within the North Augusta Riverview Park Activities Center to accommodate more fans.

“We’ve never really played in this type of environment,” said Gabe. “I mean Carmelo Anthony watched one of our games and he was sitting like right beside us. He watched our game and LeBron [James] was in the arena, Chris Paul, Ja Morant, Blake Griffin. All these guys are in there watching these 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids. It was such a great experience.”

Inspirational teammate

“Gabe is going to be a very special player in the state of Maine over the next few years,” said Maine United U15 coach Bedard, he of Mountain Valley in Rumford and Boston College/University of Maine basketball fame. “He’s a coach’s dream. He is always about the team first, attack what ever role a coach needs with 100 percent of his heart. His size/skill/high IQ make him very versatile. It was impressive to see him fight back from the very unfortunate leg injury he sustained right before the AAU season. It was inspirational watching him push himself on the side, in [physical therapy], on the bench and give everything he had to getting back on the floor with his team. Our players, coaches, parents have the greatest amount of respect for Gabe and his family for their loyalty and being there with us all year long.

“At the end of the season, when Gabe was finally cleared to play ‘live’ in practice, it was emotional watching him compete with his Maine United brothers. We had to drag him off the court. He’s a special player and a far better and more valuable person. He’s going to impact many lives and I’m proud and thankful for the time I’ve been able to work with him. He certainly would get our coaches award. We missed him tremendously this year and we are looking forward to following his undoubted success this winter.

“We constantly say to the team, ‘Who are you when things are not going your way?’ … and Gabe set the bar of how you’d want your player/son to deal with this type of adversity.”

“He’s a much better player because of this experience,” said Matt of his son. “But it has also helped him understand what he has to do over the next couple years to achieve his goals. If he really wants to play in college, he knows what he has to do and he’s seen it firsthand.”