Nobody saw the Skowhegan Area High School girls basketball team starting the season this way. Not even the man in charge.

The Indians are undefeated, sitting atop the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference and Class A North at 8-0, and there are aspects to the hot start that have even coach Mike LeBlanc perplexed.

“Probably the quickness that it came,” he said of the team’s success. “I knew they had the talent, just (considering) the (lack of) size and their lack of experience playing in the KVAC with all the tougher teams, it was a little bit of a surprise that we got it so quick.

“But,” he added, “there’s still a lot of season left.”

Maybe so, but there’s just as much already gone, too. The girls basketball season is at its halfway point this week, and across the state’s conferences and classes, a homestretch feeling is beginning to set in. The games are a little bigger. Rematches carry a little more weight. Execution of the fundamentals, the lack of which could make a difference in precious playoff seeding, becomes even more critical.

The unknowns begin to fade as well. Teams like Skowhegan, which started fast after going 6-12 last year, or Maine Central Institute, 6-3 after also going 6-12 a season ago, blossom from flukes into bona fide challengers. The races for seeding and conference championships are just getting started, but the teams that will be competing for those titles have already made their presence known.

It can make for a whirlwind feeling. Just weeks ago, teams were wrapping up preseason practices and final varsity cuts. Now tournament time, earlier just a dot on the horizon, begins to loom larger and larger, and teams begin to make the preparations to be playing in it.

“It seems like we got to the halfway point of the season very fast this year,” Monmouth coach Scott Wing said.

“I think that kind of starts after Christmas vacation is over,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “Once that’s done and everyone’s kind of back in school and back in the swing of things, we’re past trying to figure out who can do what and what the rotations are going to be. Now it’s at the point where you’re trying to improve, trying to fine tune some things as each game starts to take on more and more significance.”

Coaching, gameplanning and preparing for the second half of the season is different than in the first. Teams don’t need to figure out which schemes and lineups work. Coaches already know their teams’ identities, what their players do well. Now it becomes about finding a way to do it better.

“We talk in practices and stuff that this point in the year is when you really want to start refining things,” said Wing, whose Mustangs are 8-2 and trail only 9-0 Boothbay in the Mountain Valley Conference. “We tend to know where we’re at as a team, and we’re just starting to refine things and make sure we’re doing everything as well as we can.”

There’s also the mental aspect, making sure players maintain the intensity that put them high up in the standings so they can stay there when rising teams try to catch them.

“I think it’s more practice, even, than games,” said Gray, whose Tigers sit fourth in A North at 6-2. “I think the kids, mindset-wise, for games, they come ready to go.”

Good thing, because from here on out, the Heal points implications become more and more apparent for each game. As races in the KVAC, MVC and East/West Conference tighten, the second half becomes a battle to hang onto positioning or make a move to break from the pack. Teams in front — Skowhegan and Messalonskee (8-0) in the KVAC A, Boothbay (9-0) in the MVC, Richmond (8-0) and Rangeley (7-2) in East/West — have to finish strong, and sometimes that means getting players to hit a reset button.

“I told them, before we played the other day, in 2017 we’re 0-0,” LeBlanc said. “I said ‘This is where (in) the season now (it) becomes very important that we have to keep focused.’ I think that’s the biggest thing. … Every night (in the KVAC) is going to be a battle. Especially now. Anybody 2 through 14 can drop an ‘L’ on you in a heartbeat.”

Teams in the pack pursuing those top spots know this is the time to make their move. Wing, for example, knows exactly what Tuesday’s game with 7-2 Madison means; with a win, the Mustangs will set themselves up well for a spot in the MVC championship game. Gray doesn’t need to be reminded that his Tigers play Hampden (7-2), Messalonskee and Skowhegan when the KVAC race will be reaching the finish line. Nokomis (7-1, third in A North), Waterville (5-3, sixth in A North) and Winslow (6-1, ninth in B North) all face fleeting chances to make progress in time for the tournament.

The time to climb the standings is running out, and each game becomes an increasingly pivotal chance to make up ground.

“This is the part where it seems right now that it’s going really quick,” Gray said. “It’s practice, game, practice, game, without a lot of extra time to stop and think about everything.”

It’s a hectic pace, and it won’t be slowing down. Not that anyone involved would have it any other way.

“At the same time, this is the point that the kids love,” Gray said. “This is the part of the season where the pressure’s ramping up a little bit, but it’s certainly not overwhelming yet, and they just get to go out and play every other day.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM