The intensity is about to pick up for Maine’s schoolboy basketball teams.
The holiday break and weather-related interruptions have slowed the rhythm of the early season for some teams around the region. Through Tuesday, reigning Class D North champion Woodland and Stearns of Millinocket played just three games each compared to as many as eight for Class B Caribou and Old Town.
But the next few weeks should serve as a scheduling equalizer as teams seek to make the most of a largely competitive regular season that is scheduled to conclude in little more than a month, on Feb. 7.
Bangor and defending state champion Edward Little of Auburn begin the new year undefeated and atop Class AA North.
Edward Little was expected to be among the top contenders, and Bangor’s start was not totally unexpected, either. The Rams returned their entire roster from a year ago led by Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team forward Matt Fleming and guard Damien Vance.
But first-year coach Brad Libby and his club have confidently positioned themselves for the month to come with recent home-court victories over Portland and Cheverus of Portland. The Portland win was particularly notable, as Bangor rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit by outscoring the Bulldogs 26-3 in the third quarter en route to a 64-58 victory.
Bangor (6-0) entered a challenging portion of its schedule Wednesday night at Oxford Hills of South Paris, winner of three straight games since an 0-3 start that involved losses to Edward Little, Bangor and Portland.
The Rams visit undefeated Thornton Academy of Saco on Friday, followed by a showdown with Edward Little at Red Barry Gymnasium next Tuesday, a visit to neighboring Class A power Hampden Academy on Jan. 10 and a home date against once-beaten Deering of Portland on Jan. 12.
Bangor’s next five foes are a combined 22-5.
“Every night we step on the floor with a AA team it’s a battle, a dogfight,” Libby said after Bangor’s 78-60 victory over Cheverus on Dec. 28. “We’ve been fortunate enough to come out on top so far, but every time we step on the floor we know we’re going to get the other team’s best shot.”
One of the biggest surprises in the region is the top-ranked team in Class A North, Mt. Blue of Farmington.
Winners of one game in each of the past two seasons, the Cougars have raced out to a 5-1 start behind high-scoring senior guard James Anderson and new head coach Travis Magnusson.
Anderson led Mt. Blue to the the top spot in the division via one-point victories over No. 2 Hampden Academy and No. 3 Cony of Augusta.
Anderson scored 33 points in the Cougars’ 75-74 overtime win at 6-1 Cony on Dec. 20, then had 23 in last weekend’s 73-72 upset of 5-1 Hampden — that home-court win coming despite 38 points by Broncos guard Bryce Lausier.
Magnusson, meanwhile, has implemented an up-tempo approach at Mt. Blue after spending the previous seven years at Dirigo of Dixfield. There, he guided the Cougars to a 108-29 record while winning the 2012 Class C state title and a 2015 regional crown.
“Coach Magnusson is doing a great job getting the kids to buy into his system and his expectations,” Hampden coach Russ Bartlett said. “James Anderson is one of the best players in our league, and their role players are doing a good job and they mix defenses more than most other teams, which makes them more challenging to prepare for.”
All three of those teams look to have staying power to contend for top Heal Point finishes come early February, as does Medomak Valley of Waldoboro.
Defending state champion Hermon (6-0) remains the team to beat in Class B North, though its 97-94 triple-overtime victory at Oceanside of Rockland on Dec. 21 suggests that rivals are eager to get their shot at the Hawks.
The only other team to defeat Oceanside to date, Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor, is 6-1 and ranked No. 1 in the division. Caribou, Ellsworth and Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield are among the other hottest teams in B North.
Sixth-ranked MCI entered the week at 6-0, but coach Josh Tardy’s Huskies should be tested with Wednesday’s home game against Class B South second seed Maranacook of Readfield and a trip to Aroostook County on Saturday to play North No. 3 seed Caribou.
“One through 16 the teams in Class B can beat one another on a given night,” Ellsworth coach Peter Austin said after his team’s 46-36 win over No. 5 Orono on New Year’s Eve. “Just look at the scores around you and the teams that have beaten other teams, and you just never know.”
Class C North resumes play with a bevy of contenders led by top-seeded Houlton and defending state champion George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill. Each has just a single road loss to a Class B contender, Houlton at Caribou and GSA at Ellsworth.
A big game in that division this week is Thursday night’s battle of unbeatens when No. 2 Dexter (7-0) hosts No. 4 Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln (5-0).
Dexter is allowing a meager 33.0 points per game with only one opponent scoring more than 40. MA also has been stout defensively, yielding 40.0 points per outing.
The Class D North race is just getting started, with preseason favorites and lone remaining unbeatens Woodland and Jonesport-Beals having played just seven combined games as of Jan. 1.
They will meet twice, Jan. 16 at Woodland and Feb. 4 at Jonesport.
Other midseason contenders include Greater Houlton Christian Academy, Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook, Machias and 2-4 Deer Isle-Stonington team on the strength of early wins over Machias and defending Class D state champion Greenville, which competes in Class D South.