It doesn’t take too many conversations or email exchanges to learn that heavy favorites abound in North regional boys basketball play this winter.
From two-time defending state champions Portland in Class AA and George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill in Class C, to Hampden Academy in Class A and Hermon in Class B, expectations may be high but the challenges remain formidable throughout an 18-game regular season.
“Right now we’re 0-0 just like everyone else and we’ve got to go out and win games,” said Hermon coach Mark Reed. “That’s what we preach to the kids, but certainly there’s some excitement in having a fairly deep core group of players back.”
Bangor won its final six games to post an 8-10 record last winter, and while coach Carl Parker’s club just missed a postseason appearance in 2017 all eight Class AA North teams will advance to the playoffs in 2018.
“The key now is, are you playing well at the end,” said Parker.
Bangor fields a roster of seven juniors and four sophomores, a contingent led by transfer Matthew Fleming and point guard Damian Vance, both juniors.
Fleming, a 6-foot-5 forward, earned BDN All-Maine second-team honors as a sophomore at Oxford Hills of South Paris, and his presence gives the Rams not only a low-post threat but a level of high-quality versatility that should boost the program.
Vance is poised to blossom into one of the state’s top point guards after being sidelined by injury during the middle of last season. His return to the lineup and the emergence of sophomore wing Henry Westrich proved pivotal to the Rams’ late success a year ago.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Parker. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re a lot further along than we have been, especially at this time of year.”
Portland returns as the regional favorite behind senior point guard Terion Moss, an early favorite for the 2018 Mr. Basketball award, while Edward Little of Auburn also returns key veterans in sharpshooting forward Darby Shea and frontcourt mate Wol Maiwen. Windham boasts perhaps the state’s top backcourt combination in Nick Curtis and Mike Gilman.
Hampden Academy exited the tournament early last winter in a quarterfinal loss to Cony of Augusta, but the Broncos’ starting lineup returns intact led by BDN All-Maine senior center Ian McIntyre, a four-year starter.
Senior forward Tommy Raye and junior guard Kory Winch are other key returners, and McIntyre have additional help up front from 6-5 junior Marc Hutchings, a transfer from Bangor.
“I feel if we can stay healthy and continue to work hard each day we can contend for a Northern Maine title,” said Broncos coach Russ Bartlett. “We just need to understand it’s a day-by-day process of trying to get better every time we step in the gym.”
A balanced Gardiner team that graduated just three seniors and Nokomis of Newport, which features the senior guard tandem of Zach Hartsgrove and Josh Smestad, may be Hampden’s chief challengers within the division.
Fast-breaking Cony should be another serious challenger after reaching the regional semifinals as the No. 7 seed last February behind guard Jordan Roddy, now a senior, while Noah Bonsant leads an Erskine Academy team that also graduated only three seniors.
Brewer, which finished 7-11 to earn a preliminary-round berth, looks to be rebuilding behind senior guard Kobe Rogerson and junior guard Isaac Cummings.
Hermon went 16-2 during the 2016-2017 regular season to earn the top seed in the division but was ousted in the semifinals, providing additional motivation for a program that graduated just one senior and returns all five starters.
“I think the kids probably expect a lot from themselves,” said Reed. “I don’t know if that necessarily translates as much into titles as it does into what they expect from each other every day in the gym. They do a really good job of pushing each other.”
The Hawks are led by senior guard Keenan Marseille and senior forward Jordan Bishop, both team captains as juniors, along with senior guard Tyler Hawes, junior guards Garrett Trask and Cody Hawes, and sophomore wing Isaac Varney.
The Hawks also added 6-6 senior transfer Jacob Godfrey, who helped Machias win the Class D state championship last winter.
Among other contenders are Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston and Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, the defending state champion.
Oceanside is now in Class B by enrollment after winning the 2016 Class A North title and reaching the regional final again last winter, and return a solid nucleus including senior forward Michael Norton Jr., junior forward Cooper Wirkala and junior guard Jack Lombardo.
MDI returns six players from the first state championship team in school history, a contingent led by senior guard Andrew Phelps.
“I like our athletes and feel like we will be able to put pressure on the other teams defensively as well as push the ball on offense,” said MDI coach Justin Norwood.
Other potential contenders from the Big East Conference include Presque Isle, Ellsworth, Winslow, Belfast and a Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield team that features 6-6 junior Jose Montes Valverde and sophomore Owen Williams, who could be one of the region’s emerging standouts.
George Stevens capped off its undefeated 2016-2017 season by edging Winthrop in the state final on Jarrod Chase’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Chase is now at Husson University, but the Eagles return plenty of talent in its bid for a third straight gold ball.
Begin with senior guard Taylor Schildroth, a first-team BDN All-Maine honoree last season after ranking among the state’s top scorers at 26 points a game. Then there’s 6-6 center Max Mattson, the Maine Maritime Academy-bound senior who not only provides the complementary inside offense but is one of the region’s top rim protectors regardless of class.
Senior forward Stefan Simmons, juniors Percy Zentz and Reece Dannenberg and sophomore Caden Mattson are among other returning rotational players for veteran coach Dwayne Carter’s club.
As for challengers, Fort Fairfield suffered heavy graduation losses after falling to GSA in a highly competitive regional final last winter, but the Tigers have a top returning player in senior guard Isaac Cyr.
Piscataquis of Guilford returns its starting lineup intact led by senior swingman Bryce Gilbert, a 25.5 points-per-game scorer a year ago, while Lee Academy has four of its top seven players back including 6-5 post player Alexey Platonov.
Fort Kent graduated just one player from last year’s 10-8 team and could make the trip to Bangor from the St. John Valley. Another County team, Houlton, is back in Class C after an 11-7 season in Class B last winter and could contend with a roster featuring sophomore guard Keegan Gentle. Central Aroostook of Mars Hill, up from Class D, also hopes to make noise in its new division.
While Class D North looks wide open, the Greenville Lakers may be the best bet to get to the state final after winning the Class D South crown last winter.
Coach Bill Foley’s club graduated one player from the roster that finished 20-2, and leading the returners are senior guard and 1,000-point scorer Nick Foley and senior forward Connor DiAngelo.
Several D North tournament qualifiers from last winter are back with few graduation losses and a year of experience that should help them contend this year.
Among those are Bangor Christian, which gave 2017 state champion Machias its closest call during last year’s tournament and also lost to Greenville by just four points late in the regular season; Jonesport-Beals, which graduated only two seniors from an 11-7 team; and Deer Isle-Stonington, Greater Houlton Christian Academy and Ashland.
Machias suffered heavy graduation losses but senior guard Jordan Grant should provide leadership, and Woodland and Schenck of East Millinocket aspire to contend after dropping down from Class C.