SKOWHEGAN — When Mike LeBlanc took the job as head girls basketball coach at Skowhegan Area High School, he knew he was taking on a rebuilding job. LeBlanc knew he was inheriting a team full of underclassmen. With the regular season now two-thirds complete, the Indians have a 5-7 record and sit in ninth place in the Class A North Heal Point standings, with a firm grasp on a playoff spot after winning just two games last season.

“I think it’s about right on pace. We don’t change much up in practice. We’re just trying to get our fundamentals down,” LeBlanc said. “It’s pretty much just basketball. I’m not over-thinking anything. They’re pretty quick learners.”

A Skowhegan native, LeBlanc came back to his hometown school after coaching the Forest Hills girls basketball team for 16 seasons, leading the Tigers to the Class D West title in 2014. As he did at Forest Hills, LeBlanc stressed running and defense to his new Skowhegan team. The team had to adjust to LeBlanc’s intensity.

“Most of them are freshmen and they haven’t seen that type of intensity level that you have to have to play a varsity sport,” LeBlanc said.

There are just 15 players in the Skowhegan girls basketball program, including nine freshmen. Tracey Swanson, one of two seniors on the team and a captain, knew LeBlanc as the father to one of her friends, not as a coach.

“I’ve known coach LeBlanc since I was a little kid. Me and his daughter were friends. It was weird adjusting to him actually being my coach, referring to him as coach,” Swanson said. “During the summer, we just played ball. We didn’t do any plays or anything like that. It was a little difficult at the beginning of the year when we started running plays, but it’s been really smooth.”

Even the freshmen newcomers had to adjust to LeBlanc, after putting in some time learning former head coach Bob Witts’ (now the head men’s basketball coach at Unity College) system. First-year player Alyssa Everett said she took to LeBlanc’s system quickly.

“He likes to push us to (be) our best. He won’t let us do anything but our best,” Everett said.

The Indians opened the season with losses to Hampden and Brewer, before picking up their first win of the season, against Erskine.

“Our first two games were a little rough. We didn’t know how to play together yet,” Swanson said.

Swanson said she enjoys playing with her younger teammates, and their enthusiasm has been a bright spot, especially in recent weeks as they’ve begun to understand how to play at the varsity level.

“They’re so young. They’re so energetic. They just want to do everything, double everyone. They’ve really calmed down,” Swanson said. “I like to be a leader. Being a good role model. Not talking back to Coach or having an attitude on the court, or getting flustered when a call goes against you. You just have to get over it. The next play is the most important play.”

Last week’s 45-42 win over Winslow was a benchmark for the team, LeBlanc said.

“Winslow game was a big step forward for us, (Winslow) being, I think, one of the most athletic teams we’ve faced. We fortunately match up pretty well size-wise with them,” LeBlanc said. “They’re probably a little bit quicker than we are and stronger than we are, but we just battled them. The teams we’re having problems with are the bigger kids. We just don’t match up with them…They’re starting to build on each other and trust each other a little more. Before, there was a huge division and they weren’t really playing well as a team.”

As with many young teams, the most improvement still needs to come on the mental side of the game. The Indians still need to focus for four quarters, LeBlanc said.

“We have quarters where we’re phenomenal, and other quarters where we’re not so good. We gave up eight points to Messalonskee in the first quarter, then 27 in the second. We did the same thing at Gardiner. We gave up 21 and 27 in the first and third, and gave up one in the second,” LeBlanc said.

The team sees its improvement and knows where it can improve more. For the nine first-year players, this is a season of growth and their hope is the rebuild doesn’t take long.

“I think freshman year is an experiment for us,” freshman Annie Cooke said. “See all the teams and get into playoffs to see how it is. Then work our way up from there.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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