The Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s phenom is gone, and as a result so is its juggernaut. The shadow cast in recent seasons by the Lawrence girls basketball team has vanished, and in its absence several teams are approaching the season with the same thought.

For the first time in years, they can win this thing.

“I definitely feel like my girls just have a different approach this year,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “There’s a different feel with them. I’ve talked with some other coaches, and I think that that is a big piece. They know everything is up for grabs.”

It’s a wide-open derby in KVAC A, which for the past two seasons bore resemblance to Secretariat at the Belmont. There was no stopping the Bulldogs and their dominant forward, Nia Irving, who so thoroughly terrorized the conference that she drew offers to play at Boston University. With Irving teamed up with high-scoring guard Domi Lewis, Lawrence crushed the competition, racking up a 64-8 regular season record over four seasons, including a 42-2 mark over the past two.

Those two have moved on, however, and the question of the conference’s next power is an open one with a list of potential answers. There’s Messalonskee, led by a force of its own in Sophie Holmes. There’s Gardiner, with five starters returning, including star point guard Lauren Chadwick. Nokomis has five starters back and depth most teams would envy. Lawrence is eager to prove any newfound doubters wrong.

And the list doesn’t end there.

“I feel like any team could prevail,” Nokomis coach Michelle Paradis said. “There really should be some competitive games.”

That’s a different story than the previous seasons, during which the presence of Irving ended any questions of a KVAC race before they began. There was no one at her 6-foot-1 height who could shoot as well as she did, rebound like her, block shots like her.

“She was such a dominating player,” Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby said. “That’s a player that comes around once every decade, couple decades. They’re so rare, that they’re that exceptional. … She and Domi were such competitors, they were able to elevate that team to a status where, in order to beat them, you had to do everything perfectly.”

With Irving’s and Lewis’s graduations, however, the power structure has shifted. There’s finally a vacancy atop the conference, and a handful of teams can finally dream big — and realistically — about being the ones to take Lawrence’s place.

“It should be a fun winter,” Gray said. “It should be wide open. There should be games every night where you’re not going to know beforehand who’s going to win. That’s kind of the fun of it.”

There’s another throne open as well to the player who will supplant Irving as the KVAC’s top player. And coaches agreed that that in itself is an important distinction.

“I definitely think so,” Gray said. “Obviously, that’s a secondary concern. … But it is fun that so many of these teams in this league have really talented seniors.”

Messalonskee sits poised for both. The Eagles were 17-4 last season and made the Class A North semifinals, and return a talented group led by point guard Ally Turner and Holmes, who averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game last year and is a natural candidate to be the conference’s best player going forward.

“She kind of takes the role of the Irving girl,” Paradis said. “You know she’s the one, you look to shut her down on that team. You know she’s going to score, but you try to maintain her to a certain number of points.”

Derosby shied away from making any Irving comparisons. But he said he would enjoy if those conversations grew throughout the season.

“I would love for that to happen,” he said. “She would never ask for that or look for that, obviously. She’s very unselfish. I don’t think she knows how well she plays sometimes, she just plays. … She does so many different things, little things and individual things, that I think she has that potential. For us, she’s worth the price of admission. She’s fun to watch.”

As for being the next Lawrence, he said he and his players haven’t approached it that way.

“We’ve tried to build that ‘respect your opponent’ mentality, no matter who they are, because you just never know,” he said. “If you don’t prepare for every game like it’s your toughest opponent, you’re going to get caught.”

That’s a wise stance, as the conference has plenty of challengers, all using different approaches to aim for the KVAC summit. Gardiner went 15-5 last season, has a candidate for the conference’s top player in Chadwick, another talented player in Mary Toman and experience throughout the starting lineup. Nokomis (13-6 last year) relies more on depth than star power, with a trio of players in Sidney Moore, Olivia Brown and Chelsea Crockett that can handle the scoring load.

“I think that’s what makes a lot of these teams dangerous,” Gray said. “There are so many returning players on so many different teams.”

The final team making up the preliminary top four is the one everyone’s hoping to pass. Lawrence no longer has the feel of a dominant team, but John Donato said teams should count out the Bulldogs at their own risk.

“Out of my top seven kids that played last year, I have five back,” he said. “Everybody’s going to scratch us off because we lost two thousand-point scorers, but we feel that we’re going to be as competitive as we were in the past. We may not be as dominant without a great player.”

There’s the difference, and there’s where teams are taking notice. They’re out of the shadow, and ready to be the ones making the noise at last.

“There are a lot of talented basketball teams that either have returned some key pieces or are returning almost all of their pieces,” Derosby said. “I think it’s pretty up in the air right now.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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