AUGUSTA — It’s not hard for Cony senior Liam Stokes to tell when his team has control of a game this year.

“We’re unselfish with the ball. We work the ball around. We press. We fastbreak,” he said. “We’re trying to be uptempo the entire game. When we’re hitting shots and we’re pressing the ball, it’s hard to stay with us.”

It’s hard to stay with Stokes when he has the basketball, so Cony’s opponents are paying extra attention to the dynamic 6-foot-1 guard.

That used to mean trouble for Stokes and the Rams.

Second-guessing is lethal for a team that wants to speed up the game and create a sense of chaos like Cony does. Because everyone was still trying to find their role in new coach T.J. Maines’ offense for much of last year, Stokes faced a dilemma any time he touched the ball — Should I shoot? Should I pass it off? Can the teammate I’m passing to hit the shot if he’s open? Will he pass it off if someone else is open?

Now, Stokes welcomes the defensive attention, practically invites it. When it comes and the Rams are spacing the floor correctly, they have the defense right where they want them.

“All five guys on the floor can shoot the ball, so if they’re adding pressure toward me, it leaves someone wide open and that’s what we need. We don’t need to take extra shots. We don’t need to force anything. We’ve been doing a good job of taking smart shots,” Stokes said.

The team MVP and a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A all-star as a junior, Stokes figured to take on a significant share of Cony’s scoring load this season, and he hasn’t faltered, averaging nearly 18 points per game through the first four games. But forward T.J. Cusick is actually leading the team (21.5 ppg) in what has been a breakout junior season so far.

Then there’s Tyler Tardiff, who made Mt. Ararat pay for leaving him open in last Tuesday’s 67-64 Cony win with five 3-pointers and 17 points. Steady senior guard Ben Leet rounds out the quintet, and, at times this season, the Rams have made opponents pick their poison.

While the Rams don’t typically run their offense through a traditional point guard, Maines would rather have Stokes than anyone else dishing out the poison pill, as it were.

“He handles things really well. He’s a pretty calm kid. He’s very smart,” Maines said.

“I don’t feel that need to have to score. I trust my teammates,” Stokes said. “Sometimes when the game might be getting out of hand, I do feel the need to try to create stuff, but even then, just attacking the hoop doesn’t mean you have to shoot. It helps me as a player having four other guys on the court who I trust and who can make shots. It makes my job a little bit easier.”

Spending over a year immersed in Maines’ system has also made his senior season a bit easier, Stokes said. He spent the offseason playing AAU ball for Tom Maines, T.J.’s father and one of the legends of Maine high school basketball coaching.

“And I thought T.J. was intense,” Stokes said. “Working with Coach (Tom) Maines really helped me, especially on the defensive side.”

Leet was also on the team, and both have been important in helping T.J., who borrowed a lot of his defense from his father, teach some key concepts to the rest of the team.

“The biggest thing is he spent time in the weight room and there’s a significant difference in his body over last year,” T.J. Maines said. “He had a great summer and I just feel like he’s a lot more confident in what he’s doing. He and Ben have helped me be able to teach the other guys on what’s needed. That’s been huge.”

“I love (the style Cony plays),” Stokes said. “We press the whole game, basically. It’s tiring, but Coach does a good job getting us in shape. We feel like every team we’re in better shape than them. I mean, you can see it. The other team starts to slow down, and if we can keep it going, that’s when we build that lead.”

The Rams, who were 2-2 heading into Thursday night’s game at Brewer, are still trying to consistently keep that pace for a full 32 minutes. The closest they came to a complete game was their first win, 73-49 over Lawrence last Friday. They’ve maintained it for shorter stretches in the other three games, including losses to Brunswick and Lewiston,

With some more consistency, Stokes believes Cony can control its own destiny and redeem itself for missing out on last year’s tournament.

“That’s our first goal is to get to the playoffs,” Stokes said. “Once we get there, it’s really anyone’s game,”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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