The Messalonskee girls basketball team has been building toward this season for a couple of years. That process included taking a few lumps at the hands of Lawrence, which won a pair of regional titles and Class A state championship.

The Bulldogs, though, graduated Nia Irving, who won the Miss Maine Basketball title, along with point guard Domi Lewis. They’ll still be a strong team, but this year, Messalonskee enters as the clear favorite in a conference loaded with veteran talent.

“I think you have Messalonskee then you have everyone else,” Waterville coach Rob Rodrigue said.

Everyone else includes Gardiner and Nokomis, both of whom return their entire starting lineups.

Sophie Holmes leads a returning strong group for Messalonskee, which finished at 15-3 last season. The 5-foot-8 forward averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds last year and is even better this season.

“She’s just so good in space,” Eagles coach Keith Derosby said. “She moves so well without the ball.”

McKennna Brodeur and Lydia Dexter return to the starting lineup, along with 5-11 junior point guard Ally Turner.

“We’re pretty deep,” Derosby added. “We have some athletes and we can really throw a lot of kids in.”

At the same time Derosby said his team is not overconfident.

“The kids have a pretty humble mentality,” he said. “They think we could be good but they know there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Gardiner returns five starters led by senior all-stars Lauren Chadwick and Mary Toman. The Tigers have better depth this year and figure to be able to run more and play pressure defense.

“This group of seniors, they know this is their last shot,” coach Mike Gray said. “Our team is better but I feel like the league as a whole is better.”

Nokomis, likewise, returns five starters from a team that went 13-5 last season. The Warriors have size and speed and can adjust to the situation.

“We’re pretty diverse,” coach Michelle Paradis said. “They have matured a lot over the summer. They want to be successful and help each other out.”

Lawrence coach John Donato is looking to be among the top four teams despite his graduation losses. The Bulldogs return four players who started at one time or another during last season.

“It’s a different type of team this year,” Donato said. “We’re not very big, that’s our problem. We’re going to run and press and open up the floor. We can play.”

Skowhegan showed plenty of promise last season and returns all but one player. The Indians are still young without a senior on the team but last year they started four freshmen. Coach Mike LeBlanc plans to play eight to 10 player a game and press from start to finish.

“We live and die by the press,” he said. “We’re just looking to improve on last year’s success.”

First-year Mt. Blue coach Fred Conlogue inherits a team short on experience but full of athletes.

“We’re going to try to run up and down,” he said. “We’ll press and change our defenses quite a lot.”

Waterville returns one of the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s top players in senior Jordan Jabar ,who can play inside and out. The Purple Panthers can go big or small depending on their opponent and hope to improve on last year’s eight-win season.

“I don’t see why we can’t be as good as we were last year,” coach Rodrigue said.

Erskine adds junior Cate Silva, a 5-11 transfer from Cony. They have size to spare but have to find some guards to facilitate the offense.

“If we’re able to execute our game plan we’ll have a shot in most games,” coach Mitch Donar said.

Cony lost its two leading scorers in Silva and Haley Ward, who transferred to Winslow. The Rams are inexperienced and will look to sophomore point guard Lauren Murray and 5-11 junior Mackenzie Lewis for scoring and leadership.

“It’s a work in progress,” first-year coach Adam Rich said.

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