Talk to Mike LeBlanc about the girls basketball players he coaches at Forest Hills, and he’ll almost immediately start talking about how hard they work. He says that’s what has kept him coaching the Tigers.

“It’s just a different breed up here,” he said. “They appreciate things more, I think. They’re more respectful and grateful of what they do have.”

This season, LeBlanc coached a team with nobody taller than 5 foot 7, and took the Tigers to the Western D semifinals. He is the choice as the Morning Sentinel Girls Basketball Coach of the Year. Rangeley’s Heidi Deery and Nokomis coach Michelle Paradis were also considered.

LeBlanc was hoping the Tigers could be competitive, and win a game at the Augusta Civic Center. They did both, finishing 16-4 and establishing themselves as one of the top teams in the league. Forest Hills used its weakness as a strength, playing a fast-paced style to harass bigger teams — and Richmond and Rangeley, the two biggest teams in the league, were also the best.

“I felt like our best games this year were both losses,” LeBlanc said, citing losses to Rangeley and Richmond. “On paper, they should have beat us pretty (soundly).”

“Obviously, we didn’t have any height at all,” junior Jocelyn Hoyt said. “We just used our quickness to get down the floor. We tired out the other teams.”

LeBlanc’s gruff and blunt coaching style has drawn some criticism. He’s also a big dude, and some players will admit they were intimidated as eighth-graders.

“I’m pretty old school,” LeBlanc said. “I’m not much of a rah-rah kind of guy. I think if you can’t get up for a game, you shouldn’t be playing. I treat them like basketball players, and not girls.”

But the players usually come around, and the roster is stable from year to year. Plus, LeBlanc’s teams always play hard.

“He’s a great coach,” junior Anna Carrier said. “Playing for him the last four years has been a blast. He’s not only a coach, he’s someone we look up to.”

“He knows us all very well personally,” Hoyt said. “He’s a great coach. He really taught us a lot in life.”

Plus, the normal is not always the norm at Forest Hills. During the fall, a group of women (all of whom are mothers) would scrimmage the Tigers.

“All fall, they came in and played us once a week,” LeBlanc said. “Actually, during the season, if I wanted them to play, I’d post something on our Facebook page, and they’d show up. I don’t think anybody else has a ‘Mom Squad’ that comes in and plays.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

mdifilippo@centralmaine.com