Prior to this season, Luke Hartwell’s experience as a head basketball coach was limited to the middle school level. The former Valley High School of Bingham standout has been around basketball his entire life, so when it came time for his first varsity job, was there any doubt Hartwell would enjoy success?

“Every day was different for me,” Hartwell said. “Varsity was a whole different level.”

As a Valley player, Hartwell won four state championships. As the Cavaliers’ first year head coach, Hartwell led Valley to the Class D state title game for the first time since 2005. While the Cavs lost to Hodgdon, 51-46, they were a team that steadily improved throughout the season, and were playing their best basketball in February.

For his part in leading Valley back to the state championship game, Luke Hartwell is the Morning Sentinel Boys Basketball Coach of the Year. Also considered were Jason Pellerin, of Lawrence, and Peter McLaughlin, of Messalonskee.

Despite being a first-year head coach, Hartwell was familiar with his players. He’d been an assistant coach for his predecessor, Wade Morrill, and the team’s seniors played for Hartwell in junior high.

“I liked how intense he was. He hated to lose. He hated to lose as much as we did,” Valley senior Dylan Belanger said.

The only difference between Hartwell the junior high coach and Hartwell the varsity coach was time spent on scouting and game planning, Belanger said. Belanger remembered Hartwell focusing on fundamentals with the younger team. That attention to detail was a key to Valley’s playoff run.

To get out of the Western D tournament and into the state championship game, Valley had to beat two teams, Forest Hills and Hyde, that beat the Cavs twice in the regular season. Beating Forest Hills in the regional quarterfinals and Hyde in the Western D championship was just an extension of the improvement Valley showed in the regular season, Hartwell said.

“I thought familiarity was key. Both teams we played, I thought we improved the second time we played them,” Hartwell said. “Our kids weren’t scared or intimidated by them. The third time, there were no surprises.”

Hartwell’s courtside demeanor rubbed off on his team.

“He got us calmed down and focused,” Belanger said. “He just got us ready to go.”

Hartwell said coaching at his high school alma mater has been fun.

“I really enjoy the group of kids I’m working with. This community is a great community to work with,” Hartwell said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242tlazarczyk@centralmaine.comTwitter: @TLazarczykMTM