Tim Bonsant feared December could be a rough month. The Erskine Academy boys basketball coach knew his Eagles were short on experience, short on starters and short on time to figure it all out with a competitive Class A slate fast approaching.

“I didn’t think we would be playing very good basketball until about mid-January, the third week of January,” he said.

As it turns out, the project is ahead of schedule.

Erskine is 3-3 as the calendar prepares to flip to January, and the Eagles are trending up — after an 0-2 start, Erskine has won three of its last four games, the latest a convincing 54-38 triumph over Skowhegan at the Augusta Civic Center in the Capital City Hoop Classic.

“That’s come quicker than I thought it would come,” Bonsant said. “And that’s just the kids having confidence in me and me having confidence in them.”

Early on, Bonsant’s prognostications looked correct. Erskine returned no starters, had four sophomores in the lineup and played like it, dropping games to both Oceanside (53-41) and Medomak Valley (54-38).

“We got pushed around a little bit,” he said. “We couldn’t knock down shots … and that had a lot to do with their physicality.”

Since then, Erskine’s looked like a team that can make a run for the playoff spot that Bonsant set as a preseason goal. The Eagles beat MCI (55-44) and Cony (70-61), then had a setback against Winslow before recovering Wednesday against the Indians.

“My kids are calibrating to the speed of the game and the physicality of it, and now they’re getting a little comfortable,” he said.

Bonsant said the key for the turnaround has been tighter defense, in addition to the young players acclimating to the pressures of varsity basketball. Jack Jowett’s become a dangerous scorer, and Braden Soule — like Jowett, a sophomore guard — has improved quickly in his first varsity season.

“To think, just two years ago, these kids were playing junior high basketball,” Bonsant said.

The anchor, however, has been Noah Bonsant, who is averaging a double-double and has 26 blocks in his last three games, single-handedly turning the Eagles into a team that’s difficult to attack in the paint.

“I think the biggest reason why we’re winning games quicker than I thought we would is Noah protecting the rim,” coach Bonsant said. “If he’s not blocking them he’s usually altering the shots, and that’s probably gotten us a couple of wins this year.”

• • •

There’s a similar story going on in Wales, where Oak Hill has started 3-2 after a disappointing 6-12 season last year.

Like Erskine, Oak Hill had seemingly more questions than answers to start the winter. And like Bonsant, coach Tom Smith has been pleasantly surprised with the way his players have found their stride.

“It’s gone better than expected,” he said. “We’re playing a nice team concept, nobody’s sticking out, as far as scoring-wise. … We’re playing team basketball, and they’ve come together really well as a team.”

The Raiders have found success by spreading around the scoring wealth. Center Marcus Bailey is the leader and a daily double-double threat, but Evan Boston is also averaging double figures in points and Cohen Donnell, Darryn Bailey and Austin Noble can also be at the top of the scoresheet in any game.

“Nobody’s really sticking out,” Smith said. “It’s just playing well as a team.”

Like Erskine, Oak Hill had to shake off a tough start. The Raiders were routed in their opener by Winthrop, 79-48, but edged Lisbon, 59-56, in their next game and have since defeated Mt. Abram and Telstar and dropped a tight six-point decision to Wiscasset.

“These guys are different in that they don’t let anything really bother them,” Smith said about handling the Winthrop loss. “It was like ‘Okay, we lost. Now let’s get on to the next game.’ “

• • •

The balance of power in Class C has resided in central Maine so far this season.

A bevy of area teams have emerged as playoff and title challengers after a month of play. Winthrop, in Class C South, has been as good as advertised with a 6-0 record and four wins by 20 or more points in the wake of a trip to the South regional final last season.

The Ramblers have company, however, with three others in the South region sporting unblemished records. Madison, led by high-scoring forward Mitch Jarvais, is 6-0, as are Hall-Dale and Richmond, both eager to return to the Class C tournament after trips to the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, respectively, and this time go deep into February.

The clashes are due up in the next few weeks, however. Winthrop and Hall-Dale meet Jan. 5. Madison takes on Winthrop Jan. 10. And Hall-Dale will face off at Madison Jan. 14.

• • •

Gardiner has been without Ben Shaw to start its season, threatening to leave the Tigers without a disruptive and rebounding presence in the post.

Fortunately for coach Jason Cassidy, Connor McGuire and Cole Heaberlin have made up for it.

McGuire and Heaberlin have each moved up a spot to fill the void left by the injured and 6-foot-2 Shaw, who was expected to return as the starting center. McGuire, 6-4 but a natural power forward with his shooting touch and ball-handling ability, has taken over at center. Heaberlin, 6-1 and ideally pegged for the 3/4 swing position, has taken his hard-nosed rebounding approach to the power forward spot.

So far, it’s worked for the 3-2 Tigers. McGuire had 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in Wednesday’s comeback win over Brewer, while Heaberlin had 14 points.

“(McGuire’s) accepted the role of being the 5 and Heabs has accepted the role of being the 4,” Cassidy said. “Kids are being selfless and wanting the team to win.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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