Xavier McAtee of Presque Isle lofts a shot during a game last season against Houlton. McAtee is one of several returning players for the Wildcats this year. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Several Aroostook County basketball programs have noticed a slight decline in the number of players who tried out amid the coronavirus pandemic this winter. The Presque Isle boys team is no exception.

“We probably had five or six kids that had signed up but for one reason or another decided not to play,” 10th-year Wildcats head coach Terry Cummings said. “You never know when you’re going to be in school, so it’s tough to know what the issue is.”

Presque Isle was among the County schools whose participation in Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned skills and drills workouts in December was canceled or reduced due to remote-learning circumstances.

The Wildcats have been scurrying to catch up, having had just one week of skills and drills beginning Jan. 4 before starting more formal practices a week later.

Presque Isle’s season opener is scheduled for Jan. 21 against Class B rival Houlton.

“It certainly was different starting out because the first couple of days it was all about getting acclimated to wearing a mask on the court,” Cummings said. “The biggest difference I’ve seen as a coach is that I think kids are going to have to play more in spurts. The kids that used to be able to play the whole game or the majority of the game may need an extended break or two now instead of playing 31 out of the 32 minutes. Now they may play only 27 or 28 of the 32 minutes.

“We’re adjusting, but everyone’s in the same boat.”

Presque Isle is coming off a 7-11 season after three straight tournament appearances.

Last year, the Wildcats fielded a freshman, a sophomore and a junior among their starting five. They improved as the season continued, avenging a 17-point loss to Houlton and a 30-point defeat at Mount Desert Island late in the winter.

Presque Isle graduated five players from that team, but returns three starters in senior forward Connor Rideout, junior forward Xavier McAtee and sophomore point guard Malachi Cummings, son of the coach.

Rideout is one of only three seniors on the roster, while Cummings earned third-team All-Big East Conference recognition after averaging 12 points and seven rebounds as a freshman and joined McAtee on the All-Aroostook team.

Cummings is part of a Presque Isle sophomore class that went undefeated as eighth-graders. Coach Cummings said there may be as many as four to six sophomores on Presque Isle’s eventual varsity roster.

“They’ve played a lot of travel ball together,” the coach said. “Along with the junior class they’ve been traveling together since the second grade, playing together all the time. We’ve got a lot of experience, but we’re still young.”

Other key contributors for the Wildcats should include senior guards Jacob Devine and Jude Mosher and junior forward Noah Yarema, a former guard who has grown 3 to 4 inches and added 40 pounds to his frame since last season, when he was 6-1.

“I think he’s growing every day,” Cummings said.

Presque Isle will play three games each against Houlton and two-time defending Class B state champion Caribou. The Wildcats also face Class C Central Aroostook of Mars Hill and Fort Kent twice each and Class C Fort Fairfield and Class D Southern Aroostook once each.

“It’s a real competitive schedule,” Cummings said.

Many of the Presque Isle players are coming off a fall season when the Wildcats captured the Aroostook County Classes B-C soccer championship. The group is shooting for a similar outcome if the basketball regular season scheduled to conclude Feb. 27 is followed by a County hoops tournament.

“I think winning that will carry over,” Terry Cummings said. “Once we get into [basketball] games the competitive fire’s going to come out in the kids and we’re going to play to win.”

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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...