OAKLAND — Keith Derosby’s summer league was running low on players. So the Messalonskee girls basketball coach thought up a plan.

The Eagles were short a player for the offseason games, to which rising eighth graders are always invited. And Derosby found one that day two summers ago in Gabrielle Wener, sitting off to the side.

“We were short for the older group, I only had six kids,” he said. “I grabbed her out of the stands and said ‘I need a body. You’re here, do you want to play?’ ”

Wener came down and joined. It didn’t take long for her to leave an impression.

“You would have never known she was going into middle school. She held her own then,” Derosby said. “Her composure was fantastic. She contributed, at that point the upperclassmen were (like) ‘Go ahead, you handle the ball a little bit. We’ll just go down and have some fun.’ So we knew she could be special.”

She’s more than holding her own now. Wener has played all of her freshman season as the starting power forward for the undefeated Eagles (21-0), who will play Brunswick for the Class A state championship at 1 p.m., Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. She’s the team’s tallest player at 6-foot-1, and has settled into the job with a versatile mix of outside shooting, ball-handling and rebounding ability.

“She definitely doesn’t play like a freshman,” senior center McKenna Brodeur said. “Most freshmen are scared to go get the ball and usually they’ll kind of stand there, but she’ll go after everything. She’ll get the rebounds and she’ll splash some threes.”

She’s the lone freshman starting alongside a cast of seniors and juniors, but her teammates knew coming in what she could do. And Wener was confident she’d be able to do it.

“It’s been an excellent experience. Playing with all the seniors and being able to really connect with teammates, it’s just been great,” she said. “I kind of knew that I’d be able to fit in nicely. I wasn’t nervous at all.”

Her scoring average has settled between eight and nine points per game and she gathers around six rebounds per contest, but it’s been her mental approach to the game that has impressed her coaches as much as her physical talents.

“I don’t think it’s her height that makes her great, I think it’s her ability to understand the game,” Derosby said. “She has great instincts, great basic abilities, she’s got strong fundamentals, strong framework. She happens to have that height on top of it.”

Making the jump to the intensity of the varsity level, so often a hurdle for freshman players, wasn’t an issue for Wener. She started playing travel basketball at third grade and ended up playing for the Firecrackers AAU team, even earning a trip to Florida this past summer for a national tournament at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. The Firecrackers finished second, and Wener got to see an up-close look at high-stakes basketball.

“It was a very high-energy game,” she said. “That kind of energy (translates) to the varsity season. So I think I’m able to have that background, so I can play at this level.”

By the time her freshman season rolled around, a Messalonskee team that was looking to break through and claim a Class A North title knew it was getting a piece to help in that endeavor.

“She played with us a little bit when she was in middle school, and she could keep up with everybody,” Brodeur said. “That was pretty good. We knew that she could come up and take kids’ positions, come in and do what they were doing.”

There were adjustments to make, however. Wener was in the starting lineup opening night but still needed time to click with her teammates, and to get a sense for what the team needed her to do at a given point in the game.

“It took a couple of games for some of the offense to find its way,” Derosby said. “Not that she didn’t have the ability, but to find out where her shots were going to come from. When to pass, when to shoot. And that is a growing process.”

The breakthrough came on Jan. 19, in a game against Hampden Academy. Wener scored 21 points, hit five 3-pointers and notched seven rebounds and two steals, leading the Eagles to their 11th straight win, 54-41.

“(That) was definitely a turning point for my varsity career,” Wener said. “I felt like I was really myself in that game, and my teammates were very supportive of my game.

“I was kind of waiting in the season for that moment.”

Since then, as the Eagles have rolled, Wener has settled in. While Sophie Holmes, Ally Turner and Brodeur lead the scoresheets, Wener chips in when she can. She has scored 22 points in three tournament games, all while presenting a matchup problem with her guard skills and forward frame.

“She’s continuing to evolve into a pretty complete player,” Derosby said. “It’s hard for coaches to know how to play her because if they put a guard on her, thinking she’s just going to stay outside and shoot, she’s got some versatility there.”

She’s improving, too, adding a layer of toughness to go with her outside game and allow her to better use her height.

“She’s just active in there,” Derosby said. “She understands that sometimes you can’t just grab the ball, and so she’ll tip it. And then it’s the fight after. There’s a ball being tipped around and she just keeps going after it until she gets that rebound.”

It’s all part of a game Wener’s teammates have long been aware of, and one that she is ready to bring for one more game this season.

“I’ve always been a chill person. I’ve really never gotten nervous,” she said. “All season, we’ve been doing a great job playing ball. Going into (this) game, as long as we do what we do, we’ll be fine.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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