Even with the expanded playoffs, not too many people predicted Waterville to be in the hunt for a Eastern B girls basketball postseason berth this late in the season. But the Purple Panthers, who went 4-14 last winter, are 6-5 heading into the stretch run.

First-year coach Rob Rodrigue, a former assistant at Messalonskee, said he’s seen his team’s collective confidence get a sizable boost since the beginning of the season.

“I’m seeing a change in attitude,” Rodrigue said. “It’s been some work just changing the way we think and the way we approach games. Now, I think we’re competing every game. I think the kids have really responded well to what I’ve asked them to do.”

Another change is how well the Panthers handle defensive pressure. That has gone from a weak spot at the beginning of the season to a strength, in large part because of sophomore point guard Colleen O’Donnell.

“She’s been playing out of her mind,” Rodrigue said.

Guard Jenna Gagnon has also played well and is a calming presence on the floor. Ashleigh Gagne, a 5-foot-11 senior forward, may be Waterville’s top all-around player. With Gagne and 6-footers Lauren Crane and Whitney Scott also contributing, Rodrigue is getting some of the mismatches he had hoped for in preseason.

“When you send three or four 6-footers to the glass, it can give teams a lot of problems,” Rodrigue said.

* * *

It hasn’t meant any Heal points, but Mt. Abram made a strong showing against each of the top three teams in the Western C Heal points. The Roadrunners lost to No. 1 Madison by two points, No. 2 Hall-Dale by three and No. 3 Dirigo by three.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, Mt. Abram was 6-5 and fifth in the standings. These close games are especially important because the Roadrunners went 6-12 last season and 1-17 two years ago.

“As much as I tell these girls they’re as good as these top teams in our conference, they need to know that themselves — and the only way they can do it is by competing with these top teams,” Mt. Abram coach Doug Lisherness said.

The biggest turnaround was against Hall-Dale. Mt. Abram lost the first game 59-25, and it felt like the score was 159-25. Lisherness says it’s a case of improved confidence and conditioning.

“Obviously, the confidence is coming, which makes you a better team,” Lisherness said. “That confidence is a powerful thing. You can see that right at the pro level. And I don’t care how good you are, you cannot play up to your potential if you’re not in shape, and we were struggling at the beginning of the season because of that.”

Lisherness said no one player has been leading Mt. Abram’s resurgence, which included a 41-33 victory over Class B Mountain Valley on Monday.

“These last few games — and I think that’s why we’ve been playing so well — we’ve all been playing good,” Lisherness said. “Everyone, even if they’re not scoring, they’re contributing to our success right now.”

* * *

Madison is 10-0 and has have shown it can win close games as well as blowouts. A surprising example of the latter came Monday, when Madison posted a 51-19 victory against Dirigo, holding the Cougars to a total of three points in the middle two quarters.

“We played 10 in the first (quarter) and 10 in the second, and there were people going in and doing good things for us,” Madison coach Al Veneziano said.

Opponents are averaging 35.1 points per game against the Bulldogs, and one of the biggest reasons is 5-foot-7 senior guard Lyndsay Weese, who typically takes the toughest defensive assignment.

“She does a lot of things for us on the defensive side, which allows us to have good offensive looks,” Veneziano said.

Veneziano has had success developing defensive stoppers in the past — Bri Emery is one example — and he says he looks for certain mental attributes as well as physical ones.

“It’s just somebody who’s willing to work hard every single game as a defensive stopper, and not really worry about points,” Veneziano said. “She takes a lot of pride in that. You have to want to be the stopper, and she certainly has stepped up into that.”

Sam Bruce and Kirsten Wood have been two of the top offensive threats for Madison. Another thing that has pleased Veneziano is that Madison has improved its overall free-throw percentage.

“We practice it every day,” he said. “That’s somewhere you can really put a team away, if you get to the foul line.”

* * *

There are 10 teams with winning records in Eastern B, so Winslow’s 5-6 record is good for only 13th in the Heal point standings. The six teams that have beaten Winslow this season have a combined 12 losses.

“When we were 3-5, the teams we had lost to were a combined 39-3 at that point,” Winslow coach Tom Nadeau said. “So you have to keep it in perspective.”

The Black Raiders entered this season with little varsity experience, so they’ve struggled closing out games. That’s why Saturday’s 52-47 win over Morse was so encouraging. Nadeau said the Raiders kept their composure and had better execution down the stretch against Morse.

“Certainly, we’re hoping to use that game as a springboard to the rest of the season,” Nadeau said.

The three players with the most experience are seniors Mariah Chenard, Elizabeth Ferry and Jordyn Pomerleau. Those three combined for 41 points against Morse.

“Our upperclassmen have really started to play to their potential,” Nadeau said. “In games like that, that’s what we need those upperclassmen to do.”

There are a lot of tossup games remaining on Winslow’s schedule, beginning with the Raiders’ next game, at home Saturday against Maranacook.

“We’re going to have to handle their pressure,” Nadeau said. “We’re just going to have to be able to execute, and attack pressure with pressure, and play with confidence.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

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