Gabrielle Marquis of Caribou was named the 2017 Class B tennis player of the year in the Penobscot Valley Conference. Credit: Joseph Cyr | Houlton Pioneer Times

Crystal Bell admits she committed a strategic fault the night before what turned out to be her final match in the the 2017 Maine Principals’ Association State Singles Tennis Tournament.

“I had to play (top-seeded) Lana Mavor of Yarmouth in the Round of 16 last year and made the mistake of Googling her the night before,” said Bell, now a senior at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. “I’m reading these articles about how she’s home-schooled and plays three hours a day all year round and it just blew my mind that someone would be that committed.

“I was overwhelmed. I went in with the attitude that I was going to do my best and try my hardest, but she was phenomenal. Googling her was not a smart idea.”

Bell’s Google scouting report likely didn’t figure into the outcome of that match, as Mavor defeated Bell without losing a game en route to winning the 2017 girls singles title in convincing fashion. She lost only six games in five matches.

Such dominance by southern Maine high school tennis players seemingly is the norm these days. Laura Stein of Camden Hills in Rockport in 2004 is the most recent player north of Brunswick to capture the girls singles title.

On the boys side, Jordan Friedland of Lincoln Academy in Newcastle (2012-2013) and Eliot Potvin of Hampden Academy (2005-2006) are the most recent champs north of Brunswick. Like Mavor, both were steeped in out-of-state junior competition well beyond the high school season.

Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Compare that to Bell and Gabrielle Marquis of Caribou, two of northern Maine’s top hopes in this year’s field. Rather than specialize in tennis, both are three-sport standouts.

Bell played golf and scored 1,000 points in basketball in addition to reaching the first round of state tennis singles play as a sophomore before facing Mavor last spring.

“My favorite sport is probably basketball,” said the Holden resident, a first-team All-Big East Conference honoree who plans to play next year on academic scholarship at Oklahoma Christian University, an NCAA Division II program in Oklahoma City.

“I just took up tennis in high school, and it’s definitely grown on me a lot. I started later, but I really like it.”

Marquis, a senior who was seeded eighth in last year’s singles tournament and 10th as a sophomore, reached the Round of 16 both years after a Round of 32 run as a freshman in 2015. She is an all-conference performer in both soccer and basketball and last winter helped Caribou makes its first Bangor tournament appearance since 2011, averaging 12.7 points and 4.7 assists.

Marquis also is ahead of schedule academically. She’ll enter the University of Maine’s pre-med program next fall as a sophomore based on the college credits she earned while in high school.

“Most of us at Caribou are three-sport athletes,” said Marquis, one of six seniors on the Vikings’ girls tennis squad this spring.

She and Bell enjoy some advantages that many of their tennis-playing peers in northern and eastern Maine lack. John Bapst has an indoor base at the Armstrong Tennis Center in Hampden while Marquis coaches tennis throughout the summer for Caribou coach John Habeeb’s well-regarded youth tennis program.

“I think that helps fine-tune some skills,” said Marquis, “but it’s not exactly the same as competitively playing tennis like some of the downstate kids get to do all year.”

Both players took additional steps this year to boost their chances of advancing deeper in their final state singles tournament, which begins this weekend with regional preliminaries around the state.

While their home courts in Caribou were still buried beneath the depths of winter, Marquis and her teammates — the reigning Class B North champions who narrowly lost to Greely of Cumberland Center in the 2017 state team finals — made two trips to Bangor this spring for some early training.

Bell began a steady diet of tennis once basketball season concluded.

“After basketball this year I told myself, ‘This is your last shot playing tennis so you’re going to buckle down,’ and I’ve played pretty much every day since then,” said Bell, who averaged 11.4 points and 6.9 rebounds while leading John Bapst to a 14-4 record and Class B North quarterfinal berth.

Marquis and Bell say they benefit from the variety within their three-sport careers, but both admit that is offset by the broader tennis opportunities available to many of their southern rivals. Those include more indoor facilities, greater access to private coaches and out-of-state competition, and the continuity of playing the sport throughout the year.

“In some cases [playing multiple sports is] an advantage endurance-wise, but as far as technique and positioning and form it’s different because the downstate kids don’t have to get back in the routine of hitting their serves or topspin or cross-court shots,” Marquis said. “It’s muscle memory for them.”

There’s also a larger pool of competitive players in the southern part of Maine than in the less populated north.

Both Marquis and Bell are optimistic entering this year’s singles tourney. Marquis is likely to be seeded for a third straight year and could be joined by Bell among the 12 girls seeds.

“I’m a little less nervous than I’ve been in the past, but those girls know what they’re doing,” Marquis said. “They’re used to the tournaments and they’re used to the strong competition so they’re a little more confident going into the matches.”

Bell also is more confident of her ability to compete at the state level — though she plans to stay away from Google before her matches.

“I’ve cracked into the top 16, which was the goal last year, and this year my goal basically is to advance further than I did before,” she said. “Maybe there’s a little more pressure on myself because I expect to do better because I’ve been working harder.”

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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...