The boys basketball team of Sumner Memorial High School in East Sullivan really has no idea how good it was even as the 2010-11 season progressed beyond its midpoint.

The Tigers were winning games but the quality of the opposition wasn’t that strong, leaving Sumner fairly low in the Eastern Maine Class C Heal point ratings.

But coach Walter Crabtree’s club proved their record was no fluke, as the Tigers peaked right as tourney time arrived and rode that wave to the program’s first trip to the Eastern Maine championship game since 1973.

“To be honest, we didn’t see what was in store for us last year by any stretch of the imagination,” said Crabtree, now entering his 10th year as Sumner’s head coach.

And while the Tigers may have surprised both themselves and the rest of the division with last winter’s 17-4 season and their first tournament victories at the Bangor Auditorium since 1999, they will surprise no one when the season opens Friday.

Just two players graduated from last year’s team, and leading the returnees are two members of the 2011 Bangor Daily News Eastern C All-Tournament Team in senior guard Gabe O’Brien and junior forward Tylor Martin.

“I think with the confidence they have now the expectation level is a lot higher than it was a year ago,” said Crabtree.

O’Brien, a second-team All-Penobscot Valley Conference honoree a year ago, keys Sumner’s full-court defensive pressure and transition offense while Martin teams with senior center Xavier Tracey to give the Tigers a strong 1-2 punch in the post.

Other key players for Sumner will include senior Dillan Harmon, the team’s sixth man a year ago, senior point guard Joey Malloy and junior forward Justin Chipman.

Crabtree said the team’s schedule should be stronger this year, in part due to the addition of two new former Class B opponents in Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln and Bucksport.

Among the teams Sumner likely will have to contend with for top honors in Eastern C are defending state champion Lee Academy, Penquis Valley of Milo and the top program in the division since the mid-2000s, the Calais Blue Devils.

Calais, which lost to Sumner in last year’s regional quarterfinals, did not lose a player to graduation but did lose two forwards who were part of the team’s rotation a year ago.

That leaves Blue Devils coach Ed Leeman reconfiguring his front court to complement a returning back court led by seniors Jeff Jones and Jeremy Beers and junior Devin Hall.

Joseph Mitchell, a 6-foot-1-inch senior, figures to be the team’s top front court scoring threat, while 6-5 classmate Roger Socobasin will play a pivotal role and freshman Tyler Niles will get some minutes in the post.

“We’re young,” said Leeman, “But we’ve got some of younger kids learning how to play defense.”

Calais faces an additional challenge this year, one not unlike what Sumner dealt with last winter when its 15-3 record was good for only sixth place in Eastern C.

Given its locale way Down East and the paucity of nearby Class C teams, the Blue Devils have eight games against Class D teams this season and must stretch the state’s geographic limits for one game at Arthur R. Gould School in South Portland and a home-and-home series against Madawaska just to get to a 16-game regular-season schedule. That slate also includes three games each against Woodland and Narraguagus of Harrington.

Another team that should experience considerable improvement as the season goes along is Houlton, which will include a much-anticipated influx of young and talented players under new head coach Rob Moran.

Bucksport, meanwhile, will feature a blend of veterans and younger players as it seeks to earn a postseason berth in its first year as a Class C program.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...