The 2010-2011 Eastern Maine high school boys basketball campaign is under way, and while the teams labeled as legitimate championship contenders haven’t changed, the number of them has.

It could be a lot more crowded in the upper echelon this season, according to many coaches whose teams will likely be part of that elite crowd.

“I think one team that will have a lot to say about it is CAHS, especially getting knocked out early.””Anyone who gets in the Class D top 10 could win the tournament. I honestly think that,” said Vincent MacLean Jr., head coach of one team many are picking to win it all. “We think we’re a legit top six team. Until somebody knocks off (defending state and Eastern champ) Schenck, they’re the team to beat, and I think one team that will have a lot to say about it is Central Aroostook after getting knocked out so early last year.”

Jonesport-Beals returns a strong, talented, and big nucleus of experienced players from a 16-4 semifinalist squad that will present matchup problems for Class D and C schools alike.

“We have three starters and six or seven of our top nine back, but a couple guys decided not to come back out for the team, so we’re not quite as deep or experienced,” MacLean explained.

Even before preseason beckoned, the Royals suffered a giant loss both talent-wise and emotionally as sixth man and 6-foot forward Tyler Turcotte was killed in a car accident Sept. 2 at the ageof 17.

“It’s been a tough thing for our boys, our team, our school and our entire community,” said MacLean.

The Royals have mourned their profound loss, but will carry Turcotte’s memory and spirit with them as they play this season in his honor and try to follow his desire to not only get back to semis, but go further and at least win a regional crown.

The Royals will still go about eight or nine players deep in the rotation despite the losses and return an enviable cadre of players in 6-1 junior guard Matt Alley; 6-5 senior forward-center Zach Smith; 6-5 senior junior forward Justin Alley; 6-4 Garett Beal, who can play all five positions and will likely play all but center regularly; 6-3 junior Caden Merchant; 5-10 senior guard Matt Jenkins, a transfer from Machias; 6-foot sophomore Vinal Crowley; sophomore guard Thomas Beal; junior guard Nick Robinson; and freshmen Cole Beal and Leon Smith.

“We have depth, size, and versatility for sure, and just about everyone can score,” MacLean said. “If I can use all 11, I will.”

Meanwhile, annual contender Central Aroostook of Mars Hill, has its usual ample number of returnees with eight players back, five of whom have starting experience. Head coach Tim Brewer, now in his 12th year, is optimistic and even bullish about his team’s outlook.

“I think here in the County, we have four or five good teams,” Brewer said. “I think we’re a little better, but Jonesport is better Downeast, and then you have Schenck back playing a mostly class C schedule, and good teams in Washburn, Southern Aroostook and Katahdin.

“Overall, I like us, Jonesport and Schenck.”

The Panthers will go eight deep with 5-10 junior guard Brandon Anthony, 6-3 sophomore guard-forward Steve Decker, 5-10 senior forward Tyler Rusby, 6-6 junior center Mike McClung, 6-3 senior guard-forward Caleb Kelly, 6-foot senior point guard Logan McLaughlin, 6-foot forward Brendan York, and 5-10 junior guard Dan Brewer.

“I think the kids have a different focus. They’re more determined because they don’t like the way the season wound up,” said Brewer of his team’s quarterfinal upset loss. “And I think we learned to be a little more patient on offense.”

Coach Steve LeVasseur’s Schenck Wolverines of East Millinocket have the target on their backs this season after winning it all last season.

“I really don’t agree with it, but do I think we could possibly be a contender,” LeVasseur said, downplaying the hype. “We have three returning starters, but I’ve also got a bunch of young bucks, so if I can get them to come around and believe in me and my system, we should be good.”

Schenck returns a good nucleus featuring senior guard Brandon Theriault, 6-3 senior center Taylor Tanous, and senior forward Zach McLaughlin.

“McLaughlin really improved his game over the summer and if things work out, we could be even deeper this year because I have five guys fighting for the other two starting positions,” said LeVasseur, whose team went six or seven deep in the rotation last year.

Other key players should be 6-3 sophomore center Aaron Beaumont, 6-foot senior guard-forward Aaron Veinneau, 5-10 sophomore guard Derrick Tanous, and 6-1 sophomore forward Nathan Cram.

Other potential dark horse entries are Deer Isle-Stonington, with another Ciomei and a boatload of young talent, and Washburn.

“We’re still young, but we’re more experienced and we have more size than normal this year and we’ve been guard-oriented for awhile, but we have a little more size this year,” said Di-S Mariners head coach Glenn Billings.

Sophomore forward-center Hayden Ciomei leads the way with classmate and point guard Sam Grindle, senior forward Dylan Brown, and senior guard Dustin Powers. Junior guard Kevin Melanio also figures prominently with senior forward Mario Bartlett, sophomore guard Conner Morey, 6-1 sophomore forward Tim Cormier, and Spanish exchange student and 6-3 forward Carlos Dugo.