Bangor post player Sam Martin shoots the ball during the away game against Hampden Academy on Jan. 7.

Sam Martin realized after a frustrating junior year of high school basketball that it wasn’t enough to stand 6 feet, 8 inches.

So the Milford resident went to work on his game during the off-season and changed schools. His effort is paying off in a big way so far this winter for the Bangor Rams.

Martin has emerged as one of the top players in Class AA during his first year of competition in the big-school ranks, often battling through double-teams and even triple-teams to average more than 16 points and nine rebounds.

He also anchors a defense that has allowed just 47.6 points per outing for Bangor, which was 11-3 entering Tuesday’s game at Cheverus of Portland.

“He’s such a presence,” teammate Henry Westrich said. “He opens up shooters, he creates a lot of options.”

Martin, whose hometown has no specific high school affiliation, transferred to Bangor last summer after starting high school in Orono. Last winter the Red Riots basketball team posted a 10-8 regular-season record but was ousted in the Class B North prelims by No. 10 Washington Academy of East Machias.

“It was frustrating,” Martin said. “Obviously I had a great coach in coach [Ed] Kohtala and I was surrounded by great talent but we really underachieved.

“It was a really frustrating year for us but it was one of the best years of my life in terms of how much fun I had.”

Martin, who did not earn All-Big East Conference recognition last winter, wasn’t satisfied with how his individual game was progressing. He ramped up his off-season workouts with the help of his father Toby and trainer Matt MacKenzie.

“I spent a lot of time working on my lateral quickness for defense, my vertical, my strength in the post,” Martin said. “I really put a lot of work in this off-season and probably my strength right now is my post scoring. That’s one thing I really took the time to get better at, my right hook and my drop step.”

Martin also last spring played travel basketball with Westrich and fellow Bangor newcomer Andrew Szwez, then continued to refine his game during the Rams’ summer basketball program.

“He’s made tremendous strides,” Bangor coach Brad Libby said. “He’s big, but we really devoted this summer to working on footwork, working on sealing early, drop-stepping, and he’s really worked his butt off and taken in everything we’ve worked on.”

The extra work also bolstered Martin’s confidence as he made the jump to Class AA.

“Coming into the season I knew I was going to have a big year,” he said. “I could just feel it during preseason, I was way more dominant than I was in past years, and there’s this feeling I get when I step on the court that there’s nobody else on the floor who can stop me.”

Martin last week enjoyed his signature performance of the season to date during a road game at Deering of Portland. He posted 27 points, 18 rebounds and eight blocked shots in a 65-44 victory that moved Bangor past Deering and into second place in the Class AA North standings.

He also loomed large when the Rams needed it during their 54-45 victory at neighboring Brewer on Monday night, working inside for a three-point play and another basket during a game-ending 12-1 Bangor run that erased a late, two-point deficit.

Despite sitting out all but 10 seconds of the second quarter after drawing his second foul, Martin finished the game with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.

“We rallied amongst ourselves,” Westrich said. “We found Sam again and he was hitting through contact. He’s really grown as a player.”

Away from the crowds, Martin continues to work on the little things that make for big games.

“Hats off to my assistant coach [Scott Kissinger], we give him 10 minutes at the beginning of every practice to work with Sam on footwork, on posting up, on sealing, and he’s really made huge strides,” Libby said.

While Martin is focused on Bangor’s pursuit of a second straight Class AA state championship, he also looks forward to playing college basketball and further growth in his game.

“I don’t think he’s anywhere near his ceiling,” said Libby, who played at Husson University. “I tell all the college coaches to give him a year to be in the weight room. I really think his sophomore year of college he’s going to have a coming-out party and he’s going to be a dominant 6-8 center-forward.”

Libby said Martin has a shooting range that makes him more versatile and difficult to guard.

“If he keeps working like he is, he’s going to be a really good player,” Libby said.

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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...