HAMPDEN, Maine — The Hampden Academy boys basketball team got off to a fast start last winter, no great surprise given that the Broncos have been one of the state’s foremost programs for more than a decade.

What was surprising — even though the 2016-2017 roster marked a new look for the team after the graduation of several key players in 2016 including the state’s Mr. Basketball Nick Gilpin — was how fast last season ended.

The Broncos split their last eight regular-season games after a 10-0 start to finish second in the final Class A North Heal points, then were upset by seventh-ranked Cony of Augusta in their tournament quarterfinal.

That ended a five-year stretch in which Hampden’s briefest tourney stay was its loss in the 2016 Class A North championship game.

Fast-forward to today, and the Broncos seem intent on making last year’s untimely finish merely an aberration that fuels a new championship quest. Coach Russ Bartlett’s club is back on top of its division with a 4-0 record after Tuesday night’s 73-40 victory over Skowhegan.

Eight players are back led by BDN All-Maine senior center Ian McIntyre and include all five starters from last winter. And it’s clear this more veteran cast — older, wiser and collectively taller than its predecessor — is intent on making the most of its chance to add its name to a legacy that features three state championships and six regional titles since 2005.

“We have a lot of experience this year,” said Hampden senior guard Johnny Wolfington. “We have a lot of guys who after last year going out in the first round want to come back this year and win every game, every night.

“Everyone put in the work during the offseason, and we just want it this year. Everyone wants it.”

The Broncos have left little doubt about their intention during this undefeated start, winning by an average of 35 points.

“They’re very well balanced,” said Skowhegan coach Tom Nadeau. “They’re good from top to bottom and you have to account for everybody. You can’t try to stop one person against them because someone else will step up.”

Nine different players scored against Skowhegan, with Wolfington’s 19 points leading four Broncos in double figures. Senior forward Tommy Raye added 15, McIntyre had 12 points and 10 rebounds, and junior guard Kory Winch contributed 10 points, six assists and five steals.

McIntyre provides Hampden with a formidable presence near the basket, with Raye working both inside and beyond the 3-point arc while sophomore Mikey Raye, senior Hunter Dougherty and Bangor transfer Marc Hutchings add quality frontcourt depth.

Wolfington, Winch, sophomore Bryce Lausier and junior Ross Webb lend speed to the transition game and depth to the team’s long-range shooting from the backcourt. That was the case against Skowhegan when the Broncos hit their first five shots from 3-point distance after intermission to take control.

“We have a lot of guys who on any given night can come in and make the big baskets, whether it’s coming off the bench or in the lineup,” said Wolfington.

What pleases Bartlett most early in the season is the team’s defensive chemistry, which has enabled Hampden to allow only 36.7 points per game — and limit Lawrence of Fairfield to 16 points over a full contest.

“Everyone understands what to do defensively and I think we do a great job of helping the helper,” Bartlett said, “so when the first guy’s helping someone else is helping the helper and because of that we make a lot of plays on the back side off deflections when we’ve rotated our defense.

“The kids understand that and trust each other and understand what their jobs are out there and because of that it really allows us to do some things on the defensive end.”

Certainly the Broncos are not without areas for improvement if the Kennebec Valley Athletic Association Class A pre-season coaches’ favorites are to fulfill high expectations come February and early March.

“It’s just understanding what we need to do to be a really good team and that’s not shooting threes early in possessions,” said Bartlett. “We need to be more disciplined on the offensive end and I think as soon as we do that we’re going to become a lot harder to guard.”

Last winter’s quick tourney ouster lingers as a grim reminder not to take any success for granted.

“The big thing is just keeping our mentality up,” said McIntyre, a fourth-year starter. “Last year we started out 10-0 and kind of got ahead of ourselves, which didn’t help at all. This year we’re just looking to be very confident but not overconfident.

“This year we want to have the mentality that we’re going come out and play at our level and it’s up to you to match us.”

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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...