It’s been less than a decade since Paul Vachon stepped down as Cony girls basketball coach in 2008. The previous year, Vachon and the Rams won their seventh state championship and cemented their legacy as the pre-eminent girls program in Class A.

Fast forward to today and the team is struggling, winless at the bottom of the Class A North standings. How did the team fall so far so quickly, faster still when you consider it won an Eastern Maine championship under Karen Magnusson in 2012?

There are more answers than there are solutions. A precipitous drop in enrollment at the high school and the combining of the city’s two middle schools and two parochial schools led to a sharp decline in participation.

Ted Rioux followed Magnusson as coach when the number of players were already falling. Rioux resigned before the season ended last year for reasons undisclosed by the administration, but his departure was more of a symptom than a cause for the program’s decline.

Vachon, who took over as athletic director at Cony after stepping down as coach, believes a change at the youth level is a key contributor.

“The same thing happened in hockey,” Vachon said. “They went from house teams to travel, then the house teams were gone. As soon as they went to travel teams (Vachon includes AAU teams in his discussion) kids are cut at an early age. They’re told they’re not elite at an early age.”

Vachon, who played point guard on Cony’s 1973 state championship team, believes he would have abandoned the sport long before had it not been for YMCA, rec and church league programs.

He still runs a successful summer camp at the Augusta Civic Center that draws up to 140 girls, but said only about 25 of those come from Augusta. Those numbers are reflected in the paucity of players at the high school, just 20 for the varsity and junior varsity teams combined.

“Our goal right now is focused on this year,” first-year coach Adam Rich said. “But it starts with the feeder program.”

These days the feeder program includes schools outside the Augusta area like Chelsea, Windsor, China and Vassalboro, who can send their students to a school of their choosing. It’s a formula that’s working for boys coach T.J. Maines.

“You’ve got to be full blast into it, 24/7,” Vachon said. “T.J.’s got his numbers up.”

Rich has seen progress so far this season. His team recently scored 63 points in a loss to Lawrence and, with only one senior on the roster, there’s hope for next year.

“We’re very small but we’ve tried new things,” Rich said. “The girls are into it when we press. As we move forward I want to be able to switch defenses on the fly but they’re not quite ready.”

Rich has seen significant improvement from sophomore Lauren Murray and Sydney Avery, as well as junior Allee Cloutier, but the Rams are still up against bigger, more experienced teams every night.

Vachon said there’s no easy fix.

“I don’t know, I really don’t,” he said. “You got to teach the fundamentals, have the enthusiasm and be around all the time.”

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Given the youth on its roster, it’s a little surprising Skowhegan is unbeaten at 8-0 this season and atop the Class A North standings. The Indians don’t have a senior on a roster featuring just one junior along with eight sophomores and three freshmen. Youth shouldn’t be confused with inexperience, though. Several of the players started or saw significant minutes as freshmen, and they’ve played together at the youth and middle school level.

“Being youthful they don’t really understand pressure,” coach Mike LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc is surprised his team is unbeaten so far but cautious as his team enters its toughest stretch of the season against Nokomis, Winslow, Lawrence and Messalonskee, teams with a current combined record of 26-6.

“There’s no doubt we’re going to lose sometime,” he said. “I just want to be competitive.”

The Indians like to pressure the ball on defense and have handled pressure that comes their way as well. LeBlanc, who coached Forest Hills to a Class D regional title three years ago, doesn’t consider himself an X’s and O’s man.

“I’m not a technical coach,” he said. “We do a lot of skill work and a lot of conditioning. I want them to trust their skills and leave the game to the kids.”

LeBlanc has a deep bench and said his players continue to improve. Other than a 29-point game from Annie Cooke and a 20-point effort from Sydney Reed, no one has scored more than a dozen points in a game.

“They’re very unselfish,” he said.

Cooke has been one of the team’s primary low post defenders, doing a very effective job on Hampden’s 6-foot-3 center Bailey Donovan in a win over the Broncos while point guard Sydney Ames has been a defensive nemesis for opposing guards. Sophomore Mariah Dunbar, he said, is the team’s most improved player.

“They all bring their little things to the table,” LeBlanc said. “The biggest thing is for them to maintain their focus.”

• • •

Rangeley has come back to the pack in Class D after some dominant years, but the pack has also improved.

“A lot of teams aren’t counting us in this year,” said coach Heidi Deery, whose Lakers were 6-2 entering Wednesday’s showdown against once-beaten Temple Academy. “Some programs have made a step in the right direction.”

The Lakers recently split a pair of back-to-back games at home against Vinalhaven, losing 58-36 on Friday night before coming back to win 44-39 on Saturday morning.

“You don’t have time for practice,” Deery said. “It was more mental adjustments we needed to make. We had a little conversation.”

The Lakers lost a couple of key players to graduation, including 6-foot-2 center Blayke Morin, the MVP of last year’s state championship game. They return experienced players in Natasha Haley, Sydney Royce, Celia Philbrick and Brooke Egan, but playing without Morin and guard Maddy Egan has been a little different.

“We’ve made a lot of progress since the beginning of the season,” Deery said. “It takes a little adjustment in specific situations.”

One adjustment Deery made was moving Haley from point guard to the wing and installing Egan at the point.

“We felt Tasha would give us more scoring off the ball,” Deery said.

Deery believes Class D South will be even stronger next year, given the preponderance of juniors on rosters this season. But for now, there are four or five teams ready to contend.

“We’ve got to play every night,” she said. “We don’t have a night off. I think it’s going to be wide open come February.”

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