Going to the hoop is Southern Aroostook's Madison Shields (middle) while guarded by Hodgdon's Monique Polchies during a game in Hodgdon on Jan. 19. Southern Aroostook, a Class D North tourney perennial, is hoping to make another title run. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

There probably wasn’t anyone as heartbroken as Dexter High School girls basketball coach Jody Grant when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last year’s tournament. It was his daughter Peyton’s last shot at a Class C state championship.

In 2020, the Tigers were upset by eventual state champion Central Aroostook of Mars Hill 35-32 in the semifinals after rallying from a nine-point deficit to take a 32-31 lead.

The previous season, Dexter led Penobscot Valley of Howland by eight at the half of the C North title game but wound up losing 24-20. And in 2018, Houlton’s Kolleen Bouchard hit a 3-pointer with 24.1 seconds left in the C North final to tie it and the Shiretowners won 33-30 in overtime.

“I was extremely disappointed not only from a coaching perspective but from a family perspective. We were painstakingly close so many times,” said Grant, who is in his 18th year at Dexter. “I also thought about it in terms of the program, the culture and the future. How many young kids would have been excited to keep playing basketball or begin playing basketball if we had been able to cut down the nets [after winning a championship]?”

Peyton Grant and three other quality seniors breezed through the pod season last year, going 15-0 and winning by an average of more than 30 points per game.

But coach Grant said he was energized by the group of young players he worked with last summer and the future looks bright. Dexter has only one senior in Elizabeth Kinney, the lone returning starter, along with juniors Jozlynn Paige and Jillian Poliquin, sophomores Cally Gudroe, Hannah Dean and Mazy Peach and freshman Abilene Corson.

“It has been a challenge. There are growing pains. But it has been fun,” said Grant, a defensive-minded coach whose team can’t be counted out after allowing just 28 points per game in its first eight contests, five of which were wins.

Hampden Academy coach Nick Winchester, Hermon coach Chris Cameron and Southern Aroostook High of Dyer Brook coach Cliff Urquhart also believed they had teams poised to make runs at state titles a year ago.

Hampden Academy and Southern Aroostook were three-time defending regional champs in Classes A and D, respectively, and Hermon won the B North title in 2020.

The good news for each of the three is that they return a solid nucleus that should enable them to contend this season. Hampden Academy will have a more challenging task since it was elevated to Class AA.

“I try not to think about last year. It makes me cry,” chuckled Winchester, who lost Megan Deans, the team’s “heart and soul,” to graduation but has just about everybody else back.

Not having a tournament enabled inexperienced players to get valuable playing time in a less stressful environment.

“We gave them plenty of playing time to prepare for this season,” Winchester said.

Sophomores Lauren Voteur and Lucy Wiles, in particular, benefited and they have started games and complemented veterans like Bella McLaughlln, Camryn Neal and Emma Haskell.

HA won eight of its first 11 games this winter.

“From the time last year finished to when we started preseason, the girls were totally focused and ready to compete in a new division against teams we aren’t familiar with. They gave everything they could to be ready. They are all hungry to get back to the tournament,” Winchester said.

Cameron said it was frustrating for Hermon not to get another crack at a state title last year, especially after being held scoreless over the final 9:21 of a 34-26 overtime loss to Wells in the 2020 state game.

“I thought about how close we were to winning a gold ball over and over again,” Cameron said.

Since there wasn’t a tournament last year, he changed the players’ focus, encouraging them to become better teammates and leaders. They had a successful pod campaign.

Cameron returned six seniors with a ton of experience this season in Liz Wyman, Faith Coombs, Meg Tracy, Sydney Gallop, Charlotte Caron and Maddie Lebel. They won 11 of their first 13 games.

Hermon did lose its leading scorer from 2019-20, Bucksport transfer Jade Leeman, to a knee injury before the season but is still a top contender.

“Our philosophy all year has been cherish every moment because you never know when something could be taken away. Work hard to get better every day and peak at the right time,” Cameron said.

Southern Aroostook coach Cliff Urquhart had a unique perspective.

Even though he had one of his better teams last season and couldn’t try to avenge a 42-38 loss to Greenville in the 2020 state title game, they did beat Class B Presque Isle in the Aroostook County pod championship game.

“That was one of the biggest wins in program history. And by playing B teams like Presque Isle, Caribou and Houlton and losing just one game (at Presque Isle during the regular season), it gave us a lot of confidence to bring into this year. And our kids gained some mental toughness,” Urquhart said.

Junior Maddie Russell was averaging 18 points a game and sophomore cousins Cami Shields and Maddie Shields were averaging 12 to 14 points as the Warriors earned the top seed for the 2022 Class D North tourney eyeing a third state title in the last four tournament years.